Megan Welter, Cardinals Cheerleader and Iraq Veteran

photo: Arizona Cardinals

Megan Welter is not your typical pro-football cheerleader. There is no denying the sport is tough—cheerleading accounts for 60-70 percent of catastrophic injuries among female high school athletes—but this 28-year-old member of the Arizona Cardinals squad has a background not generally associated with pompoms and hot pants. She's a United States Army veteran who served as a platoon leader in Iraq.

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Welter started doing baby ballet classes when she was 3 years old and danced competitively from the age of 9. After high school, she participated on her college dance team. When she graduated in 2007, she shelved her dreams of a career in dance. "The war was going on at the time when I graduated college," she told ABC15. "I wanted to take a job that was going to be meaningful, so I decided to join the Army."

courtesy ABC15

Welter completed basic training and then enrolled in Officer Training School. "I was commissioned a second lieutenant at the end of April in 2007," she said. "And from there I became cable platoon leader and I deployed a month later from Henning Air Force base] to my unit to Iraq."

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The third generation soldier—her father and grandfather both served in the military-—knew that, by going into officer training, she had a "100 percent chance" of being sent to Iraq. "I thought it was the right thing to do," she told in a 2012 video profile. "I was deployed to Joint Base Belad which is about an hour north of Baghdad. At first, it was, it was scary you know, but…it's what I signed up to do." She was only 23 years old and in charge of the maintaining the communications network for the largest base in Iraq. "It was definitely a sink-or-swim type of experience."

Welter in Iraq (ABC15)

During her 16-month tour, another NFL team went to Iraq with their cheerleaders to entertain the troops. "I remember talking to them, getting information, seeing if it was even a possibility," she said. After she returned home, it took her three seasons to gather the courage to audition for the Cardinals, but in 2011, she went for it. She made it through the semifinals and, then, along with more than 100 other young women, to the finals. "At that point I was determined and driven to make this team."

Megan Welter (photo: ABC15)It was seven years between dancing competitively in college and auditioning for the Cardinals, and Welter's now one of the oldest women on the team. "It's just been such an amazing experience, and to be at this age and still be able to do this," she told ABC 15, "and to do it…taking such a long break, it's been really exciting."

When she's not cheering on Sundays, Welter still serves as an Army reservist. She says one of the highlights of each game is when she hears the National Anthem and a huge American flag is unfurled across the field. "When you see the flag, it means a lot, you know, because our country has given us so many freedoms, and to be a part of fighting for that and maintaining that, it, it means a lot. So yes, it gives me goosebumps, I can't help it."

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