Joni Ernst has retired after 23 years in the military.

Ernst, one of Iowa's two Republican U.S. senators and the first female combat veteran in the Senate, officially ended her service in the Iowa Army National Guard on Monday, the last day in November.

"Today is my first day as a full-fledged civilian," Ernst told The Des Moines Register in a telephone interview Tuesday. "It was one thing I had stated I would do during my campaign. Obviously, serving as a United States senator, it does take a lot of time, a lot of energy. ... And of course I would love to spend more time with my family, as well."

Ernst's Iraq War experience and ongoing service were central to her political rise. It helped set her apart in a crowded GOP primary for the U.S. Senate in 2014, then helped secure a general election victory over Democrat Bruce Braley.

Military affairs will continue to be a top priority, she said. She serves on the Senate's Armed Forces and Homeland Security committees. Her first speech on the Senate floor was to introduce a bill on mental health services for veterans.

Until September 2014, Ernst was commander of Iowa's largest battalion. In 2003 during the Iraq War, she and her soldiers drove supply convoys from Kuwait into Iraq, conducting 402 missions comprising 2,091 loads and 230,728 miles driven, records show.

She was assigned over the years to units in locations across the country — including St. Louis, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Kansas and several locations in Iowa — and has held many duty assignments.

Her most recent position was deputy chief of staff at the headquarters at the Iowa National Guard's Joint Force Headquarters in Johnston. She ran special assignments for the adjutant general and chief of staff.

Ernst had continued to fulfill her commitment to attend drills, and most recently attended one in November, she said. She will receive a military pension starting at age 59, she said.

Ernst said it was an honor to serve in the military.

"This was very much a part of my life and it is very difficult for me to step away because of the great people I had the opportunity to work with," she told reporters Tuesday.

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