A Guard Soldier’s Journey from Truck Driver to Attorney

In his eight years of part-time service with the Illinois Army National Guard, Jacob Smith has gotten some big benefits – leadership skills, a sense of direction in life, and his undergraduate and law degrees, courtesy of the Guard’s education benefits.

And now this former 88M Truck Driver is putting his law degree to work as the newest officer in the Illinois Guard’s Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps, the branch of the Guard that serves as a legal resource for Soldiers, Guard units, and the State Adjutant General.

“It is an interesting contrast,” says First Lieutenant (1LT) Smith of his switch in military occupational specialties (MOSs) from driving large vehicles to now advising his colleagues on legal matters.

“Being a JAG officer is more applicable to my civilian career,” he says. “It will broaden my base of legal experience and knowledge.”

Growing up, 1LT Smith had positive impressions of becoming an attorney, having worked in his family’s law firm, and of military service because his father had served in the active duty Army and later the Illinois Army National Guard.

After starting college, 1LT Smith decided to serve in the military.

“I thought the Guard would be a good way to do both at the same time.”

1LT Jacob Smith has gone from 88M Truck Driver to an officer in the Illinois Army National Guard’s Judge Advocate General Corps.

1LT Jacob Smith has gone from 88M Truck Driver to an officer in the Illinois Army National Guard’s Judge Advocate General Corps.

He chose 88M because Illinois has a lot of transportation units, and the MOS had a relatively short training schedule. His Advanced Individual Training could be squeezed into a summer between semesters, plus he could drill close to school.

And because of his State’s tuition assistance, 1LT Smith estimates he has saved somewhere in the ballpark of $100,000 in tuition for his undergrad and law degrees. On top of that, the GI Bill helped with living expenses while he was in school.

“These are huge benefits on the financial side,” says 1LT Smith, 26, who’s also hoping to take advantage of another Guard benefit in the next few years – VA home loan eligibility – which allows Soldiers to buy a home with little to no down payment.

1LT Smith, who’s been an attorney since 2017, just recently completed his JAG Corps training, a two-part process. First, he attended the 6-week Direct Commission Course at Fort Benning, and then he spent 10 ½ weeks at the Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School in Virginia where he received “a crash course in many areas of military law.”

As a judge advocate in his new unit, 1LT Smith expects to do a fair amount of what’s called administrative law. This includes participating in administrative separation boards used to determine whether a Soldier should be discharged from the Guard because of misconduct. In such cases, the Soldier would appear before a board instead of in a courtroom.

“It’s one tool used by commanders to more efficiently deal with certain misconduct, rather than pursuing a court-martial process.”

Judge advocates often deal with cases involving criminal offenses as well, which is a departure from 1LT Smith’s full-time civilian law career, where he focuses on business law, estate planning, and commercial real estate and banking matters.

As a JAG officer, he’ll also be handling cases related to property law. 1LT Smith explains that typically a commander would initiate an investigation if a sensitive and valuable item like a pair of night vision goggles was lost to determine if someone should be held liable. A JAG officer would review the findings to make sure they are legally sufficient.

One of 1LT Smith’s goals for the future is to deploy overseas and work in operational law: “the laws of war, advising commanders in an overseas environment on whether they can legally engage certain targets, spend money on particular projects, and what are the repercussions for taking certain actions in a combat environment,” he says. “It’s an area of law where there’s not really a civilian equivalent.”

Overall, 1LT Smith says his time in the Guard has given him direction in his life, great people to serve with, and an opportunity to give back.

“The opportunity to serve comes with sacrifices, certainly, but I get to carry on a civilian career and work with incredible leaders and friends,” he says. “It adds tremendous value to my life.”

So, if you’re looking for a way to serve your community and your country part-time while you pursue a civilian career, you should speak to an Army National Guard recruiter. Besides outstanding education benefits, the Guard also offers training in more than 130 career fields.

Search our job board for details on careers in engineering, administration, infantry, armor and field artillery, aviation, medicine, military police, intelligence, mechanic and maintenance, transportation, and logistics support.

Share on FacebookShare on Twitter

Paramedic Takes His Skills to the Skies as an Army National Guard Flight Medic

SPC Mason Burkhart is a flight medic for the Nevada Army National Guard and a paramedic for a local emergency medical services provider.

SPC Mason Burkhart is a flight medic for the Nevada Army National Guard and a paramedic for a local emergency medical services provider.

From his days as a lifeguard in high school training alongside members of an ambulance company, Mason Burkhart knew he wanted to go into the medical field. And from an even younger age, he knew he wanted to join the Army.

So now at age 23, he’s doing both. In his civilian life, he’s a ground-based paramedic for Reno, Nev.’s Regional Emergency Medical Service Authority (REMSA). In the military, he’s Specialist (SPC) Burkhart, a 68W Healthcare Specialist who serves part-time as a flight medic for the Nevada Army National Guard.

That’s on top of his enrollment as a pre-med student at the University of Nevada, where he’s working on his bachelor’s degree in microbiology using the Guard’s State education benefits to pay for his tuition and textbooks.

From there, SPC Burkhart is keeping his options open as to what he might specialize in as a physician down the road, but trauma surgery is definitely among them.

In the meantime, his aviation unit, which includes some of his REMSA co-workers, is preparing for a deployment to Afghanistan next year where it will perform medevac missions to treat and transport critically ill and injured patients.

SPC Burkhart has been in the Guard for only 18 months, but he came into it with several years of medical experience under his belt. He became an EMT at age 18, “fell in love with it” and went on to become certified as a critical care paramedic, which ties in directly with his Guard work as a flight medic.

Both of his jobs complement each other, he says.

His Guard training as a combat medic is more heavily focused on treating traumatic injuries, which has improved his assessment and treatment skills for those patients, whereas his civilian career gives him exposure to many more patients – 40-50 per week – who are experiencing medical issues of all varieties.

“It’s a really unique line of work,” he says of his civilian job. “You have to be really adaptable. From one second to the next everything can change. No two days of work are the same, and I really like that.”

That same unpredictability goes for his Guard work, too, particularly for his unit, which operates from Black Hawk helicopters, and therefore requires SPC Burkhart to know the Black Hawk’s capabilities, such as how to use a hoist to attend to a patient on the ground.

“We can get activated for anything. We can go to hurricanes, we can fight fires, we can do search and rescue. You train for what your capabilities are, but you never know what you’re going to be getting into.”

SPC Burkhart says his unit embraces DUSTOFF (Dedicated Unhesitating Support to Our Fighting Forces), as more of a motto than just the radio call sign for a medevac helicopter.

“We’re always there in a time of need, and that’s one thing I just really love about the Guard. I love my job; I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I have the coolest job in the Army [National Guard].”

Besides being there to help his fellow Soldiers when they need him, SPC Burkhart has also answered a call to serve some local veterans. Last summer he volunteered to serve as a medic for Honor Flight Nevada, which takes veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorials and museums that are dedicated to their military service.

“It’s really awesome to see [the veterans] reminisce. They make friends with you, they make friends with each other, and it’s just a good time for everyone.”

Honor FIight is an experience he’d like to share with his father some day, a former Marine turned Army National Guard Soldier and Gulf War veteran.

“He really loves the fact that I’m in the Army. It gives him someone to talk to about all the little nuances that only people who have served can understand.”

SPC Burkhart has zero regrets about his decision to serve.

“It’s a big commitment to sign your name, take that oath and dedicate yourself to something larger, but it’s definitely worth it.”

So if you’re interested in dedicating yourself to serving others, the Army National Guard has a unique dual mission of serving the State and the Nation.

The Guard offers Soldiers training in one of more than 130 careers in fields like armor and field artillery, administration, transportation, and engineering. And because military service is a part-time commitment, many Soldiers also hold civilian jobs or attend college or a trade school using the Guard’s education benefits.

Contact your local recruiter to learn more.

Share on FacebookShare on Twitter

Despite Dark Times, New Jersey Guard Recruiter Never Loses Hope

JOINT BASE McGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. – All eyes are on New Jersey Army National Guard Captain (CPT) Domenico Lazzaro as he walks up to the podium using two canes.

It’s Oct. 18. Seventeen months have passed since CPT Lazzaro’s life changed due to a training accident.

“I never thought I would be in this situation,” he says.

For the next 45 minutes, he tells the story of how he has come to stand in front of the Soldiers, Airmen and civilians at Joint Force Headquarters located at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. He calls it: “Don’t dis my disability.”

On June 11, 2017, CPT Lazzaro fell while navigating an obstacle course at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst during annual training and fractured his T8 vertebrae in the middle of the spine.

After seven hours of surgery, the doctors had fused five vertebrae from the thoracic to the lumbar regions.

In one day, CPT Lazzaro went from racing motorcycles and being an avid weightlifter to being paraplegic.

For most people, this would have been the start of coming to grips with a new reality, taking into consideration the accommodations they might need or the things they might not be able to do again. Others would simply give up.

CPT Lazzaro didn’t.

Three weeks later, something peculiar happened.

CPT Domenico Lazzaro of the New Jersey Army National Guard shows the audience a slide about different levels of spinal cord injuries during the National Disability Employment Awareness Month observance at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., on Oct. 18, 2018. (Photo by MSG Mark Olsen).

CPT Domenico Lazzaro of the New Jersey Army National Guard shows the audience a slide about different levels of spinal cord injuries during the National Disability Employment Awareness Month observance at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., on Oct. 18, 2018. (Photo by MSG Mark Olsen.)

“After my injury, I had a buzzing sensation in both legs similar to the feeling you get when a leg falls asleep, but I could not move them.”

CPT Lazzaro began to have some feeling in his foot.

“The first evening, I stayed up all night moving my left toes.”

According to his doctors, this was unusual, because recovery occurs from the point of injury down, not the other way around.

“The doctors kept pushing me to move things, so I did,” says CPT Lazzaro.

This was not the first time that he had faced adversity.

In 1991, while a member of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Hodgkin’s is a cancer in the lymphatic system where cells grow abnormally and can spread to other parts of the body.

For the next two years, CPT Lazzaro underwent radiation treatments. After 20 years, he is cancer-free.

In 2009, he reenlisted in the New Jersey National Guard and received his commission in August 2011. From 2015-2016, CPT Lazzaro deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as the 328th Military Police Company’s executive officer. Upon his return, he accepted a full-time position as a specialty branch recruiter. Then last year’s accident occurred.

Because of his injury, CPT Lazzaro was given the option of medical retirement with disability.

“I want to continue to serve,” he says, refusing to give up.

In order to continue his service, he must be able to pass the Army physical fitness test in two years.

From July to December 2017, CPT Lazzaro was in a wheelchair. Then he used a walker until January 2018.

“I switched to forearm crutches from February to June, and started using canes from June until present,” he says.

During this time CPT Lazzaro was in intensive physical therapy.

“Once I started moving, I began using a glider – a type of upright elliptical that uses your arms to move the legs.”

He also uses an electronic stimulation bike that uses electric pulses to move his legs to pedal a bicycle, an exoskeleton harness that mechanically moves the legs, and locomotor training, while physical therapists move each leg and his hips to simulate walking on a treadmill. This is all combined with basic leg strengthening exercises.

All these devices serve one purpose: helping CPT Lazzaro learn to walk again.

Today, he can move with the aid of one cane.

“The more I progressed, the more I could do on my own,” he explains. “The physical therapists say my progress is staggering.”

CPT Lazzaro is back at work with specialty branch recruiting and serves as the 42nd Regional Support Group’s anti-terrorism officer.

He also spends time working with other paraplegic patients.

“I try to help people get past the idea that they can’t recover,” he says.

Because of his experiences, he brings one thing that is sometimes missing from other people: hope.

“Hope is very important,” CPT Lazzaro says. “Believing things will get better with time can help you progress and adapt to your situation.”

It is hope that drives him.

“I want to go back to my life the way I was,” he says. “I want to be the person I was.”

If you’re passionate about helping and healing others like the medical professionals who helped CPT Lazzaro, visit our job board and explore health care careers in the Army National Guard.

Being a Soldier in the Guard means serving your community and country while making a difference. The Guard provides education assistance, and offers training in more than 150 career fields including engineering, logistics, infantry, and aviation. Reach out to your local recruiter to learn more.

From an original article by MSG Mark Olson, New Jersey Army National Guard, which appeared in the news section of NationalGuard.mil in October.

Share on FacebookShare on Twitter