‘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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Telling the World What We Do

When First Lieutenant Skye Robinson woke up on Friday the 13th last month, he already knew it was another unlucky day for Colorado.

Earlier in the week, torrential rain had fallen for three straight days and nights. Nearly 15 inches had doused Boulder and surrounding communities, which is nine times that area’s average rainfall for the entire month.

flood-ravaged highway

Colorado flood waters devastated roads, bridges, homes, and anything else in the way. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by: Tech. Sgt. Wolfram M. Stumpf/RELEASED)

By Wednesday evening, all that water had funneled through Boulder Canyon and merged with the region’s creek system to become a wall of rapids that ripped up roads, bridges, homes, and everything else in the way.

As a Public Affairs Officer (PAO) for the Colorado Army National Guard, 1LT Robinson had been following the news closely. He knew all too well that a call would come any minute to deploy some of the very same teams that had battled devastating wildfires just two months earlier.

And it did. Soldiers began responding Thursday afternoon to what would become one of the largest search and rescue missions in Colorado Guard history, dubbed “Operation Centennial Raging Waters” by the military.

So Friday morning, 1LT Robinson got up at the crack of dawn, packed his rucksack, and boarded a Humvee headed to the scene.

high-clearance military vehicle

A high-clearance military vehicle navigates flood waters. (Army National Guard Photo by Sgt. Joseph K. VonNida/RELEASED)

“It was a challenge to even get to the area. There was standing water everywhere, in places where there isn’t supposed to be water. Streams were raging rivers. We had to weave around many different roads.”

Once he finally arrived, he linked up with other PAOs to fulfill his duties during the operation.

“Being a PAO is not just a desk job. If you do it right, you’re out there doing your Soldiering thing, too,” 1LT Robinson says. “We communicate what’s happening in the field by being out in the field. We take photos, see what’s going on, and tell the world what the Guard is doing. In a support role, you make sure the people in the field get what they need, which includes being recognized for the amazing work they do.”

And communicate he did. A quick Google search for his name and “Colorado floods” brings up dozens of articles in which he’s quoted in publications across the nation, from USAToday and Reuters to the Los Angeles Times, The Tennessean and more.

Flood response efforts were most intense over the next seven days as the National Guard coordinated with local authorities, fire departments, and civilian search-and-rescue teams to locate and evacuate thousands of stranded citizens.

“They quickly realized how many people were completely cut off – the roads were gone,” 1LT Robinson says.

In the Larimer and Boulder County areas, those missing roads and the canyon terrain limited rescue efforts almost entirely to air operations, while other areas, like Lyons, Colo., could be navigated by high-clearance military vehicles.

Dog being rescued from the flood

Rescue efforts followed a “no pet left behind” policy. (U.S. Army National Guard Photo by Sgt. Joseph K. VonNida)

“At the peak of the mission, there were 750 troops, 20 helicopters, 200 military vehicles, and 20 ground search-and-rescue teams, each with six Soldiers and three light medium transport vehicles (LMTVs),” 1LT Robinson says. “At the same time, we had 67 traffic control points to ensure cars didn’t travel into broken or washed-away roads, and there were sandbag operations that delivered 12,000 sandbags to stop the water in areas that weren’t hit quite as hard.”

All totaled, nearly 3,500 people and more than 1,300 pets – yes, pets – were evacuated by air and ground operations that first week.

“Helicopters would go up and insert rescue personnel into the area, who would then go out, find the people, and make sure they had everything they needed – and that included their pets. A big lesson learned during the wildfires was that people won’t leave if they can’t bring their pets. We rescued a lot of dogs, cats, fish, and even a spider monkey.”

From his post in Boulder, 1LT Robinson says it was amazing to see helicopter after helicopter return with evacuees.

“I was there watching people come off the helicopters and saw their gratitude. Many gave hugs to their rescuers,” he says. “For me personally, this was exactly why I joined the Guard: To help our neighbors in times of need. It’s really the most rewarding mission we do. It’s unfortunate when we have to be called, but it’s why we do what we do.”

After that first week and well into October, more than 120 National Guard Engineers began working with the Colorado Department of Transportation to assess and begin rebuilding all the damaged roads and bridges – the kind of mission that 1LT Robinson himself might have been called to do early in his military career.

He originally joined a Reserve engineering unit after graduating high school back in 1995. About six years later, there was a massive fire in which an Army National Guard engineering unit was called.

“I said to my commander, ‘Hey, why aren’t we helping?’ And he said, ‘we aren’t the Guard.’ That’s when I knew I wanted to switch,” he says. “In January 2002, when my contract was up, I joined the Guard as a 62E, which now is called 12N Horizontal Construction Engineer.”

After two more years as a part-time Citizen-Soldier, working as a commercial heating and air conditioning service technician, 1LT Robinson decided to change course. He became a full-time Recruiter for the National Guard and used Guard education benefits to pursue an undergraduate degree in business management. Completing his degree then enabled him to attend Officer Candidate School, which later led to his present position.

“I was able to finish my degree with no money out of my pocket. Professionally, the Guard has given me the opportunity to better myself and opened so many doors. They really encourage you to challenge yourself.”

If you’d like to learn how to open doors, challenge yourself, and reap the rewards of serving your neighbors in times of need, visit the Army National Guard jobs board and contact a Recruiter today.

(To view more images of flood recovery efforts, visit the Colorado National Guard’s flickr page.)

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Drive + Determination = Serving Above and Beyond

At 8 years old, Danielle Gorie watched with wide eyes as Army National Guard Soldiers rolled into her Hurricane Andrew-ravaged town near Miami. They were there to hand out food and supplies, as well as protect the community from looting.

“It left an imprint on me,” she says about those difficult days in ’92.

Fast-forward three years and we arrive at the next important event to shape the decisions young Gorie would make for her own future. Her Naval pilot brother, Dominic, who was 20+ years her senior, got a call from NASA informing him that he was selected to be an astronaut candidate. Throughout middle school and high school, she looked on as her brother piloted several Space Shuttle missions.

By the end of her junior year, Gorie knew exactly what she wanted to do.

“I had this superstar older brother, and I wanted to make my dad proud, too,” she says. “I enlisted in the National Guard on July 31, 2001. I just had to wait until I turned 18 to do my training.”

Of course, while she was waiting, four hijacked airliners crashed into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and a field in Shanksville, Pa.

“I watched the Twin Towers on television and just thought, ‘Wow.’”

Yet the events unfolding around her did not derail Gorie’s drive and determination: She was going to make her own mark by serving her community and her country in the Guard.

And that’s exactly what she’s done throughout her 12-year military career. Only when you’re motivated by such drive and determination, the word “serving” needs to be followed by “above and beyond.”

On Deployment

After Basic Combat Training, she completed Advanced Individual Training (AIT) as a 42A Human Resource Specialist and deployed to Afghanistan in 2004 with a Military Police unit out of Florida. But just a few days after their arrival, they lost several Soldiers in a vehicle accident. So Gorie volunteered for regular shifts driving one of the MP Humvees that patrolled Kabul. She also volunteered a couple of times each week to cover the night shift in one of the compound’s guard towers.

“I just felt like I was serving more of a purpose that way.”

Back in the States

Eight years later, Gorie – now Staff Sergeant Gorie – is still volunteering.

After returning to the States, she sought full-time Guard employment, first as a Recruiter Assistant and later as a Recruiter. Her outstanding work earned her a promotion in 2011 to become the Advertising and Marketing Non-Commissioned Officer (MNCO) for the Recruiting and Retention Battalion for the State of Florida.

MNCO duties can be exhaustive, from coordinating events to managing ad campaigns and budgets to running social media properties and more. But when SSG Gorie’s battalion commander sent out a special request via email this past spring, she was the only one who answered the call.

First Ever in Florida

The National Guard was first authorized drill instructor specialties back in 2008, yet no female Soldiers in Florida had ever accepted the grueling challenge of becoming a Drill Sergeant. Until now, that is.

SSG Gorie packed her bags in April and headed to 9 weeks of drill instructor training at Fort Jackson, S.C., with 88 other candidates from across the Nation.

“It was like Basic Training all over again. You get treated like a private, despite your current rank. It teaches you how to be a Drill Sergeant.”

She arrived on a Wednesday, and at 3 a.m. on Thursday reported for an Army Physical Fitness Test – the first of many training activities that would narrow the field down to a final graduating class of 60.

“Many couldn’t pass and went home on the first day.”

After that, SSG Gorie was up at 4:15 every morning and down at formation at 5 a.m. for 90 minutes of physical training, followed by a shower and breakfast. Either classroom or field training filled the rest of the day’s official learning activities until dinner chow, but the day was in no way over.

“After dinner is when you studied MOIs (Memorandum of Instruction). Each week you had to memorize several MOIs – some weeks there were eight of them. And then they would draw a card for one MOI and you’d have to pitch it verbatim. If you didn’t make it, you had to do it again at 4 a.m. the next day. If you failed a second time, you went home. It was the biggest disqualifier for the class.”

She had to re-pitch twice, but did so successfully and graduated on her 30th birthday in June.

Gorie now reports one weekend a month as Drill Sergeant for Florida’s Recruit Sustainment Program, which prepares recruits for Basic Combat Training in the months before they are scheduled to go. They learn basic Soldiering skills, physical training, map skills, and more.

“It makes Basic a lot easier and they have an absolute edge. Most get ID’d as squad leaders.”

Another First for the Future?

So, does SSG Gorie’s new role fulfill her drive and determination to make her mark in the Guard?

Yes – and no.

“I want to be Sergeant Major one day. We’ve never had a female Sergeant Major in our battalion, so I’m setting my sights toward that next.”

If you want to make your mark in the Guard like SSG Gorie, visit the Army National Guard jobs board and contact a Recruiter today.

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