Soldier Embraces Opportunities to Learn Through Army National Guard Service

PFC Daniel Olson doesn’t know how his Army National Guard journey will play out. And, he’s happy about that.

In addition to tuition and health care benefits, and the ability to serve his community, access to almost unlimited opportunities is one of the things he loves most about the Army National Guard.

PFC Daniel Olson
PFC Daniel Olson

“There are 26 letters of the alphabet. If plan A doesn’t work, there are 25 other plans,” says PFC Olson, who currently works as a Horizontal Construction Engineer (MOS 12N) and a recruiter’s assistant for the New York Army National Guard.

No matter what plan or path he chooses, he knows the Army National Guard will be part of his life for a long time.

Soldier Surrounded, Inspired by Military Service

PFC Olson was surrounded by military service while growing up. His mother served in the Army National Guard, his father and grandfather were in the Navy, and his uncle was in the Marines for 32 years. He enjoyed hearing the stories his uncle shared.

“He always talked to me about the military,” says PFC Olson. “Seeing his awards and listening to his stories opened my eyes and made me realize I want something like that.”

He knew he wanted to serve his country but wasn’t sure which branch would be the best fit. Then, while in high school, he was inspired by a speaker at a leadership conference. She told a story about how her parents’ home was flooded during Hurricane Katrina and Army National Guard Soldiers helped her family.

“She said a National Guard Soldier carried a fridge out of the basement by himself. She said she’ll never forget what they did for her parents. I thought, ‘That’s awesome. I want to help people,’” says Olson.

Not too long after the conference, an Army National Guard recruiter visited his school. A teacher notified students about the visit and said they could go to enjoy pizza being served at the event with no obligation to join the Army National Guard. Olson was not about to turn down pizza, so he went and ended up asking the recruiter several questions. He was intrigued by the benefits offered by the Army National Guard but had no intention to join.

From “I’m just here for the pizza” to Army National Guard Service

After reflecting on his plans for the future, PFC Olson realized he got more than just free pizza out of the recruiting event at his high school. He realized the Army National Guard was the military branch that would best fit his plans: getting a degree and being part of his college’s track team while serving in the military part-time.

He is currently attending the State University of New York at Delhi, pursuing a physical education degree. His studies may evolve into a sports management degree so he can get a personal trainer’s license.

So far, he has paid nothing for his tuition thanks to the Army National Guard’s education benefits. He is using the GI Bill, GI Bill Kicker (a supplementary monthly monetary benefit), and Pell Grants to fund his college education. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pays him to work at his school’s Veterans Lounge and he received a $20,000 bonus for joining the Army National Guard. He also gets paid for his Army National Guard work.

All of the Army National Guard benefits are icing on the cake – or cheese on the pizza – for PFC Olson.

“I’m able to stay close to home to attend school locally, pursue my career goals, and serve my country,” he says.

The Army National Guard has also taught the kind of life lessons he was hoping for.

“I actually wanted to better myself as an individual,” he says. “I wanted to become more organized and make sure I was on point and focused when I got to college.”

From Plan A to Plan Z

PFC Olson is enjoying his current MOS and learning the ropes as a recruiter’s assistant. He’s looking forward to gaining even more skills when he deploys for the first time. He will be working along the U.S. southern border for 14 months starting this October.

For now, he is embracing whatever opportunities come his way with an open mind for the future.

He may want to pursue a recruiting career. He may want to use his Army National Guard heavy equipment training for a civilian job. He may want to use his personal trainer’s license to open a gym that focuses on getting people physically and mentally ready to join the military.

He plans on working at least 20 years for the Army National Guard. And no matter what else he pursues over the next two decades, he knows he will be prepared with the communication, leadership, and teamwork skills he has learned so far. He also intends to keep following two key strategies:

“Paying attention to detail and being able to listen are so important,” says PFC Olson. “If you can do those two things, everything else will come.”

If you want to serve your community while also accomplishing your personal goals, check out the Army National Guard, where you’ll serve part-time and receive training in one of more than 130 careers in fields like Intelligence, Heavy Weapons, Ground Forces, and Mechanic and Maintenance. For details on any MOS, search our job board, and contact your local recruiter for more information.

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Guard Chaplain Says Serving Once a Month is Not Enough

CPT Rachel Zarnke with the Four Chaplins Medal
CPT Rachel Zarnke, Chaplain for the New Jersey Army National Guard’s 1st Squadron, 102nd Cavalry Regiment, displays The Four Chaplains Medal she was presented with in Jordan last June. The four chaplains – two Protestant ministers, a rabbi, and a Catholic priest – went down with the torpedoed USAT Dorchester during World War II, giving up their own life preservers so others might survive. (Photo by SFC Brian A. Barbour, Army National Guard.)

Captain (CPT) Rachel Zarnke loves serving as a Chaplain in the Army National Guard so much that coming to drill “one weekend a month is not enough.”

“I love being an Army Chaplain,” she says. “I love the mission. I just want to do it every day.”

The 33-year-old Soldier is joining the active duty Army this summer so she can serve full-time, but after eight years with the New Jersey Army National Guard, she leaves on many high notes.

One is being awarded with the Four Chaplains Medal in 2019, which is presented to one Army Chaplain a year for “collegial selfless behavior while rendering religious support to the military community regardless of faith or race.” For that, she thanks her first Unit – the 104th Brigade Engineer Battalion – because “they grew me and taught me what it meant to be a Chaplain.”

Another is a 9-month deployment to Jordan with the 102nd Calvary Regiment, where she learned it was OK to take this next step in her career. Her mission there was to support Soldiers of any faith or no faith at all and be their “morality, ethical, and spiritual touchstone,” she says.

“When deployed, you are absent normal touchstones,” she explains. “It can become disorienting very quickly. Having a Chaplain able to reorient people on their values, their goals, and what is real, and what is just sort of the fog of the deployment is important.”

As a Christian minister, CPT Zarnke represents her faith tradition, but to help Soldiers of different or no faith, she listens and asks Soldiers how their spiritual traditions or their value sets might instruct them to resolve a problem. During the deployment, if she felt a Soldier needed support beyond what she could provide, she referred them to other resources as necessary.

In Jordan to support Operation Spartan Shield last year, CPT Zarnke also led “spiritual resiliency trips” to places that carry religious, spiritual, cultural, or environmental significance.

“Being in a place where God has been is very important to me, so to be able to share that part of my faith with my Soldiers was incredible.”

CPT Zarnke, an Illinois native, was in seminary school at Princeton when she decided to join the military. Since she was a full-time student, the Guard was the perfect branch to join because service is part-time. CPT Zarnke also served as a minister in a Lutheran church in New Jersey for 3 1/2 years.

The military, she says, showed her there were infinite ways to serve.

“I don’t like to play the demographic game, but when you are a young female, trying to step up and lead in a church, no one wants to listen to you. Not intentionally, it’s just not a voice people are used to deferring to. The Army teaches you to stay in your lane – to know what you know and to lead. It was a life-changing experience.”

CPT Zarnke especially likes working with younger Soldiers who are still figuring out who they are.

“I think a Soldier’s heart is amazing. They are so selfless, and so honorable, and to be able to support them in their moments of need really means a lot to me.”

In her first domestic mission, CPT Zarnke lent her support during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, providing what she calls “ministry of presence –  just being there for your Soldiers,” whether it’s to thank them on behalf of the citizens of New Jersey for responding to the devastating storm, being a safe person to talk to or pray with, or to provide them with the Eucharist because many churches were closed.

At drill, her job is to get to know the 300 to 400 Soldiers in her Unit and provide worship services and Bible studies, but her most fulfilling mission is “whenever I’m called outside of drill and there’s a need I can meet.” That could mean meeting up with a Soldier in a hospital, a coffee shop, or a laundromat to lend her support.

When CPT Zarnke looks back on her early days in the Guard, she says she had no idea what she’d gotten herself into, but “the Army will teach you what it needs from you. I could never repay the Army for everything it’s given me. It is an incredible community.”

If you’re interested in joining a community of dedicated women and men who serve both their communities and their country, Guard service comes with benefits that go beyond personal fulfillment. You’ll train for a career in one of 130 specialties, including everything from Administrative jobs to Police and Protection roles to serving on the front lines as part of Ground Forces. Guard Soldiers are also eligible for money for college, low-cost health and life insurance, and more.

Contact your local recruiter for more information about the Army National Guard.

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Guard Officer Finds Purpose in Military Service and Helping Veterans

2LT Bryan Abell recently commissioned as an Infantry Officer in the Michigan Army National Guard through ROTC at Michigan State.

Second Lieutenant (2LT) Bryan Abell says he’s made a few decisions that he doesn’t have a solid explanation for – one of them was joining the military without knowing much about it, other than what he’d seen in the movies. Another was his successful attempt to break a Guinness World Record for doing the most chest-to-ground burpees in a 12-hour period. The inspiration was a YouTube video he just happened to catch about someone who’d broken a record for most burpees in an hour.

These days, the recent college graduate is finding more meaning and more purpose in the things he does, and he gives most of the credit for that to his experiences serving in the Michigan Army National Guard. The 24-year-old just commissioned as an Officer in the Guard in December through his participation in ROTC at Michigan State University.

Between finishing up his finance degree and serving as an 11B Infantryman in the Michigan Army National Guard’s 1/126th Infantry Battalion as part of the Guard’s Simultaneous Membership Program, he also found time during his senior year to start a non-profit organization, the Stronger Warrior Foundation, with his sister, Katelyn.

“We wanted it to be a military-based organization; it’s an amazing community that doesn’t get thanked enough for what they do,” says 2LT Abell. “It’s one thing to say, ‘Thank you for your service.’ We wanted to have an impact that wasn’t just surface level.”

Stronger Warrior Foundation creates care packages for deployed Soldiers. Items are contained in hand-built wooden crates that can be decorated by a sponsor, who can also send written or video messages to the recipients.

The Stronger Warrior Foundation creates care packages for deployed Soldiers.

2LT Abell is also putting his pursuit of another world’s record – this time for most burpees in an hour – toward raising money for his charity. You can catch the action live on Stronger Warrior’s website at 4 p.m. Eastern, Saturday, March 21.

Part of the inspiration to do something that helps veterans came from 2LT Abell’s experience as an ROTC Cadet training in Honduras, where he rucked alongside the Honduran military through villages with mud huts and no running water.

“It was a humbling experience to see how lucky we [Americans] are and how lucky our military is.”

ROTC also gave him the opportunity to participate in Air Assault School and compete against seven other international ROTC teams at the Ranger Challenge, held at The U.S. Military Academy.

Besides opportunities that have molded him into an Officer, his military service also came with some great financial benefits: the GI Bill®, the GI Bill® Kicker, State tuition assistance (about $6,000 a year in Michigan), federal tuition assistance (about $4,000 a year), a monthly stipend through ROTC, and a scholarship that paid for the cost of living on campus.

“I didn’t have to pay for any room and board expenses while at Michigan State. I didn’t have to pay for much of anything,” he says.

Army ROTC allows Cadets to choose between Active Duty or National Guard assignments once they commission. 2LT Abell is staying in the Guard, though he had considered switching from Infantry Officer to Financial Manager Officer. His training at Fort Benning, Ga., home of the infantry, cemented that decision.

“I absolutely just fell in love with everything about the Infantry. The history, the ancestry of the Infantry, the lineage that you’re following after – it’s something very special.”

Staying in the Guard also means he can serve part-time and close to home in his new Unit.

“I plan on being very involved in the military, but I also want to be close to my family, run this non-profit organization, and work a civilian job, too.”

Rather than pursuing a corporate career, 2LT Abell is going to be working as a financial advisor to help people with their finances so they have “a better quality of life.” He’s planning to pursue a master’s degree and eventually work in the government so his work can have a positive impact on the lives of others.

“There’s got to be some kind of purpose and meaning behind it or I don’t feel like I’m fulfilling myself.”

Joining the Guard, he says, “has been the best experience of my life. I definitely wouldn’t have started that non-profit if I wasn’t in the National Guard. I don’t think I would have broken that world record if I wasn’t in the National Guard. I don’t think I’d be a lot of things if I didn’t join the National Guard.”

If you’re between 17 and 35 years old, you, too, can join the Army National Guard, and you don’t have to join ROTC to take advantage of great benefits like money for college. The Guard also offers free career training in fields like Transportation, Aviation, Mechanics and Maintenance, and Heavy Weapons. Our job board has all the details. Contact your local recruiter to learn more.

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