Stephanie Ronecker McLaughlin, the executive assistant to Nevada’s Adjutant General and enthusiastic volunteer for a wide variety of pursuits, died unexpectedly Sept. 25 after a brief illness.
She was 41.
“Hiring her was in my humble opinion the best thing I could have ever done for the Nevada National Guard because she made everyone in the state headquarters office that much better,” Nevada Adjutant General Brig. Gen. Bill Burks said.
McLaughlin, of Reno, was born April 27, 1974 in Summit, N.J.
As a child, she played soccer, skied and was often found at northern New Jersey’s Surf and Stream Campground. A dedicated caretaker throughout her life — the local baby-sitter as a child and “Aunt Stephie” to many as an adult — McLaughlin volunteered constantly, as recently as this summer at Camp Cartwheel for children with disabilities, her sister, Joey Ernst, said.
She also possessed an entrepreneurial streak as a child — the foundation of her well-known work ethic.
“She was the ‘Lollipop Girl’ and carried lollipops around school to sell to teachers who then gave them to students,” Ernst said. “She was a business woman even then.”
In 1993, McLaughlin joined the active duty U.S. Air Force. She eventually joined the New Jersey Air National Guard in 1997 and served in the Pentagon, first as an aide to retired Maj. Gen. Ronald Jay Bath.
“I used to call her the most efficient human on the planet,” said Bath, who spent much of his career as a Nevada Guard F4 pilot before working in Washington, D.C. “She worked for as many four stars (generals) as anyone I’ve ever known. There was no job you gave her that she didn’t have the ability to immediately engage, even if you thought it was impossible. She got it done at any cost.
“She was incredibly devoted to her senior officers. I’ve never had anyone who was so devoted to me.”
McLaughlin worked for several U.S. Air Force generals at the Pentagon and in Germany. She also served in Antarctica.
“She wasn’t intimidated by talking to a general or instructing a general on what they should be doing,” said ex-husband Tim McLaughlin, who met her while in the Air Force. They were married 12 years and remained friends after divorce. “She didn’t see rank or see size. She was sort of a force of nature.”
In 2010, McLaughlin worked in the U.S. Air Force quadrennial defense review office in the Pentagon. Burks knew McLaughlin from working at the Pentagon two years prior, before he took the job as Nevada’s adjutant general in 2009.
“I went to Washington, D.C., and met with Stephie to see if she was interested in working in the Office of the Adjutant General,” Burks said. “I was ecstatic when she expressed interest.”
“I knew there was only one person that I wanted to run the office of the adjutant general,” Burks said. “That was Tech. Sgt. McLaughlin.”
In May this year, McLaughlin signed a six-year re-enlistment contract with in the Nevada Air National Guard and planned to live in Nevada the rest of her life, according to friends and family.
During her time in Nevada, McLaughlin worked for several community non-profits, including the Nevada Military Support Alliance. She worked closely and developed a strong friendship with Teresa Di Loreto, the executive director of NMSA.
“She was always two steps ahead of me,” Di Loreto said. “She always finished my sentences. She knew what I needed before I did it. She could anticipate my next move, and she just supported me in my role with NMSA.”
McLaughlin organized many galas and other events for NMSA, including the homecoming of U.S. Army Sgt. Tim Hall, of Hawthorne, Nev., who lost both his legs following an enemy mortar attack while deployed in Afghanistan. He received a new home thanks to NMSA funds.
“Stephanie visited him (Hall) in the hospital,” Di Loreto said. “She took care of him. She made sure his room was OK. She went out of her way in her role.
“Those boots on the ground are going to be tough ones to fill. And I don’t think it’s possible to fill.”
After her divorce, McLaughlin eventually began dating Harold Kiesling, of Reno.
“She was an amazing woman — not just in the military, but also for her volunteer efforts,” Kiesling said. “To know her is to love her.”
Earlier this year, McLaughlin was scheduled to be a guardian aboard Honor Flight Nevada, a nonprofit that funds visits to the nation’s capital and war memorials for U.S. veterans of foreign wars.
“She wanted to go on that so bad,” Kiesling said. “It was one thing she hadn’t been able to do.”
On Sept. 29, four days after her death, the flight McLaughlin was set to board departed Reno for the nation’s capital with veterans of World War II and the Vietnam War.
In her place, Kiesling framed a photo of McLaughlin to board the flight, signed by friends and family.
“She was way beyond my best friend,” Kiesling said. “She was my soul mate. She was everything to me.”
Several coworkers expressed their loss:
“She was a tireless worker,” Nevada Air Guard Maj. John Brownell said. “She even tried to plan my wedding. I told her, ‘For once I want you to just be a guest and enjoy yourself.’ But that wasn’t Stephie. She was at the wedding coordinating the limo pickup and doing other things.”
“She was giving of her time and her attention,” said Nevada Army Guard Sgt. Samantha Perry, who worked in Office of the Adjutant General in Carson City at a desk next to McLaughlin’s desk. “Being a general’s aide is hard, but she really hit it out of the park because of her selfless attitude ... She will be missed by a lot of people.”
During her military career, McLaughlin was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal, four Air Reserve Forces Meritorious Service Medals, the Air Force Commendation Medal and two Air Force Achievement Medals.
McLaughlin is survived by Kiesling, her parents, Fred Ronecker and Sharon Ronecker, and her two sisters, Spring Tumminelli and Joey Ernst.
A celebration of life will be held from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Oct. 24 in building 130 in the fuel cell at the Nevada Air National Guard Base in Reno. McLaughlin will be entombed and receive military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, Kiesling said.