‘Wanting In’ To Make a Difference

Sergeant First Class Michael Semeja

Sergeant First Class Michael Semeja

When Sergeant First Class Michael Semeja was a kid and someone asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, chances are he didn’t answer “a jet-mechanic-history-teaching-petroleum-supply specialist-turned-recruiter-and-marketing-noncommissioned-officer.”

But that’s just what he’s done in the 22 years since graduating from high school. And not just “done” but “done well.” It would take six tweets to capture his entire list of military awards and decorations.

You may wonder how all of those different jobs could possibly be woven into one career path leading to SFC Semeja’s present position as the Marketing NCO for the Arizona Army National Guard. Oddly enough, it all makes perfect sense the way he tells it. His mantra: Build on what you already know.

The path begins in Minnesota back in 1991. First stop: the U.S. Navy.

“I left the day after I graduated high school. Desert Storm was going on and I wanted in on it. I had taken the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) and the first one to call me was a Navy recruiter.”

SFC Semeja told the recruiter that he was interested in being a jet mechanic for the Army since his family had all been in the Army.

“He told me, ‘Well, we have that,’ and the next thing I knew, I was in the Navy,” he jokes.

Operation Desert Storm actually ended before SFC Semeja finished his training. So instead, he deployed to Operation Southern Watch/Southern Shield, where troops monitored and patrolled the airspace south of the 32nd Parallel in Iraq.

At the end of his five-year Navy enlistment, he didn’t renew his contract. He decided to enroll at St. Cloud State University and pursue a civilian career as a social studies teacher.

After a little while, he “wanted in” again. This time, it was the Army National Guard and for multiple reasons: He missed military life, all his college friends were already in the Guard and loving it, he had always admired the Guard’s response to the many floods that occurred after ice melts in his State, his college loans were piling up, and on top of it all, danger seemed to be looming domestically.

“Jesse Ventura was governor and commander-in-chief for the Minnesota National Guard at the time. It was September 1999 and Y2K was coming around. What pushed it over the edge for me was Ventura saying he would call the Guard if he had to. I thought, ‘I’ve got to be a part of that.’ I had served abroad and had all that training. I felt like I should be using it, and this was a way to serve locally.”

Having done “collateral duties” in the Navy, SFC Semeja says he had a lot of experience storing, cleaning, and conducting lab tests on petroleum. So, when it came time to pick a Military Occupational Specialty (MOS), he went with what he knew and selected 92F Petroleum Supply Specialist.

Minnesota didn’t need him for Y2K, but the Guard’s education benefits helped him pay back his student loans. By the spring of 2002, graduation loomed with little prospect of finding a teaching job given the overabundance of available teachers in his area.

“I found out about a program called ‘Troops to Teachers’ in Arizona at the time. So, I transferred and found a job right away.”

He taught history the next school year, but soon his commanders were sizing up SFC Semeja’s skills for another role.

“They said, ‘So, you’re a teacher and you like to work with kids. How about switching to recruiting?’”

Even though he had no recruiting experience, SFC Semeja said “yes” and tapped into his newly acquired teaching skills, as well as everything he’d learned in public speaking classes to tackle the new position. The strategy worked. By September 2003, he was named Rookie of the Year for the Arizona Army National Guard.

Of course, he still had his 92F skills and the Nation needed those skills in Afghanistan. He deployed the summer of 2005 through January 2007. But Semeja won’t be written in the history books as having just taken care of petroleum during Operation Enduring Freedom.

Every eighth day, Soldiers earned a “reset day” to do laundry, rest, and have some time to themselves. SFC Semeja did his laundry, but the remainder of his reset time was not spent resting.

“I was in the laundry room when a female Soldier walked in and took off the traditional Afghan garb she had on [in order] to wash it. She was wearing jeans and a shirt underneath. It turned out she was an interpreter from Miami.”

They started talking and he learned that she was helping at a local school for girls in the remote, mountainous town of Khost, near Pakistan. The effort was significant because girls in that area were not traditionally allowed to attend school. He also found out that the school desperately needed supplies to continue operating.

SFC Semeja decided to send a few emails to his former Arizona teaching colleagues, as well as to his contacts at Arizona State University where he had been studying for his master’s in teaching before his deployment. A short while later, his requests filled two 5-ton vehicles with donations to deliver to the school, including backpacks, pens, paper, books, shoes, and clothing.

In addition to the donation drive, he also decided to use his reset days to learn and teach local Afghanistan history to the kids he observed hanging out in the local town square. He says many were there to sell handmade items and other merchandise in order to earn enough money to pay for school.

“Even though I was out there refueling Apaches, Black Hawks, and Chinooks, I felt like I wanted to do a little more.”

SFC Semeja returned to Arizona and resumed his Recruiter duties. His passion to “do a little more” to make a difference soon took the form of expertly sharing what he loves most about the Guard with young people looking to begin their careers.

He developed a recruitment program in 2009 that earned him the Army National Guard’s Top Recruiter and Retention NCO title. That recognition led to his promotion the following year to Arizona’s Marketing Noncommissioned Officer. Since then, his successful grassroots approach to marketing for his State has earned him the honor of serving as the liaison for his region to the Guard’s national Marketing Advisory Council.

If you’re looking to build on what you already know and turn your experiences into a successful career path the way SFC Semeja did, visit the Army National Guard jobs board and contact a Recruiter today.

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