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Single mother of four, grandmother, and company commander in Afghanistan

By Jim Maceda, NBC News Correspondent

There are still nearly 100,000 American service members stationed far from home in Afghanistan. NBC's Jim Maceda profiles Capt. Matilda Howe- a single mother of four, a grandmother and a company commander in Afghanistan.

Capt. Matilda Howe is an impressive mix of raw energy and uncanny focus. And she needs to be: she’s the company commander in charge of keeping a key combat aviation brigade in Afghanistan's Logar province in the fight. Whether it’s fuel for her Apache and Chinook helicopter gunships, or drinking water for 4,000 soldiers - every nut, bolt, frozen vegetable, bullet or Hell-Fire missile comes under her watchful eye, as she stays one step ahead of her forward operating base’s needs. The sergeants who have to keep up with her call her "the Energizer Bunny."

But "Mattie," as she likes to be called, has a softer side, too. In her Echo Co. headquarters she anxiously awaits the next mail call and the arrival of the latest crazy nail polish from the States. She calls her 79 soldiers "her children" and knows something about mothering. When Mattie joined the Army at the age of 24 she already had four kids, and signed up on a bet she couldn’t handle the military and her large family. Not only did she thrive in the Army, she also adopted a fifth child. Today, at 36, she’s a grandmother.

"I could never have made it without my mother," she’ll tell you with tears in her eyes. Doris Gardner, herself a 50-something cancer survivor, has taken charge when it’s mattered most, watching over all the kids – her grandkids –  during Mattie’s five overseas deployments. In spite of the distances and long stretches of time away from home, Mattie has tried hard to be a mother to her own. She’s addicted to Skype, calling home at least one, even two hours a night, if possible. She likes to "hang out" with her family, who gather in their living room back in Colorado Springs and chat, via cyberspace. Mattie is also good at sending short video clips she makes from her Flip camera about her life in Afghanistan and her mission there.

Mattie says she draws strength from her family, and those roots go deep – she’s also a full blooded Navajo, the first in her family to leave the reservation back in Jeddito, Ariz.; the first to complete high school and the first to get a college degree.

Captain Matilda "Mattie" Howe, Echo Co 2-10 Combat Aviation Brigade, the commander in charge of keeping a key combat aviation brigade in Afghanistan's Logar province ready for the fight, discusses the importance of family in her life.

"In my culture, family is the foundation of life," she says. Sticking together as one gives Capt. Howe the time and space to focus on her demanding job in a war zone. She has no illusions about how dangerous that can be – her unit has lost five pilots since July. But Mattie also gets strength from her tribe, and a special prayer dance performed by her grandfather before she left for Afghanistan often brings her peace, she says.

Mattie Howe is a single mom and a half marathon runner who happens to wear a uniform and defend her country. She never shies away from a challenge – I learned that the hard way when I boasted I’d beat her in a 100-yard dash, back on base. She not only smoked me but left me writhing in pain with a pulled hamstring.

She says she’s just an ordinary Native American who loves her country and wants to give back, but she’s also a tough as nails "lifer" who’s in it for the full 20 years, the first female commander in her brigade. She even dreams of becoming a general some day.

One thing’s for certain – Mattie Howe will never slow down.

Jim Maceda is an NBC News correspondent who is based in London and covers Afghanistan extensively. You can watch his series "Far From Home" on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and on msnbc.com.