Ale in a Day’s Work: Officer Credits Guard Experience for Brewery’s Success

Major (MAJ) Steven Gagner, Infantry Officer in the Vermont Army National Guard, has built an accomplished, fulfilling life from the skills he’s gained, the lessons he’s learned, and the experiences he’s had while serving in the military. Those fundamentals gave him the tools he needed to succeed, and now he’s living his ultimate dream.

In 2010, while deployed in Afghanistan, he and a fellow Vermont Army National Guard Soldier came up with the idea to open a brewery back in Vermont. They wrote up plans in the back of a notebook, and when they arrived home, they took out a loan – that’s when 14th Star Brewing Company was born.

They received their license in May 2012 and brewed 60 gallons that month. Now, seven years later, they’re brewing 6,000 gallons a week, have 24 employees, and distribute to seven states: Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, with additional limited distribution in the United Kingdom.

Major (MAJ) Steven Gagner of the Vermont Army National Guard is co-founder of 14th Star Brewing Co., and Danger Close Craft Distilling.

After the success of 14th Star, MAJ Gagner and two fellow Soldiers opened a whiskey distillery called Danger Close Craft Distilling, with one goal in mind: to make a big impact on veterans. Future sales of Danger Close’s bourbon and whiskey raise money for non-profits and brings veterans to Vermont, at no cost, to teach them all about business, and how their skills from the military can translate directly to their civilian lives.

“We were leaning so heavily on the things we learned in the service about building a team, establishing goals, leading people, getting results, working hard – all of those things we had learned in the past couple of decades in the service transitioned beautifully to business ownership.”

Because of these feats, MAJ Gagner was named Small Business Person of the Year for the State of Vermont this past June and the Military Times’ inaugural Entrepreneur of the Year in 2017.

Along with running two successful businesses, MAJ Gagner is now the battalion commander of the Army Mountain Warfare School in Vermont, which teaches Soldiers survivability, lethality, and mobility in extreme climatic environments. Training 1,000 Soldiers a year in the rain, snow, and mountains, the school focuses on basic and advanced mountaineering, advanced medical evacuations, and high-angle shooting.

MAJ Gagner’s decision to join the military stems from growing up in a patriotic family with a father who served in the military for 36 years, and his desire to serve his country. He enlisted in the Army National Guard in 1996 while attending Norwich University, and has been serving ever since.

“It just seemed like a hand-in-glove fit,” he recalls.

MAJ Gagner’s military journey spans decades and has led him down many different career paths within the National Guard.

“I have the weirdest career ever,” he jokes.

MAJ Steven Gagner is an Infantry Officer in the Vermont Army National Guard.

For the first eight years of his service, he worked in aviation, both in the Guard and active duty, serving in Korea and Alabama. Once he was off active duty, he went back to college. After graduation was when his career touched many facets of the Guard, including Armor, Quartermaster, Logistics, and Infantry. Fifteen years and four branches later, he is now a decorated Infantry officer in the Vermont Army National Guard.

“I love Vermont Guardsmen,” he says. “There’s just something about the Vermont Guard. The Soldiers are really terrific, professional, and we’re a family. It’s pretty cool to be in such a close-knit, patriotic state.”

Using his Guard benefits, MAJ Gagner purchased a house using the VA Home Loan, used tuition assistance while attending college, and was able to transfer his Post-9/11 education benefits to his two children, taking the burden of college debt off their shoulders.

“I’ve had such amazing experiences,” he says.

MAJ Gagner has dedicated so much of his time to helping others, not only with his businesses, but through his service as well. While deployed in Iraq, he was involved in a handful of public works projects. During his second deployment in Afghanistan, he was part of a patrol team that kept the civilians of Bagram safe from rockets. In 2011, he toured Vermont with his fellow guardsmen and helped victims of Hurricane Irene.

“It was so wonderful and fulfilling to do things that other people needed.”

MAJ Gagner is a firm believer in going for what you want and never asking, “what if?” Joining the military ultimately led him to becoming a businessman, and he couldn’t be anymore grateful.

“My time in the Army has made me a better business owner,” he says, “and being a business owner has made me a better officer.”

If you’ve got passion, drive, and the desire to be a part of something big, join the Army National Guard. With more than 130 careers in fields like engineering, technology, and intelligence, you’ll be able to serve your community, country, and State while having the time to pursue your passions! Browse open opportunities on the job board today and contact a recruiter to learn more.

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Planning Pays off for Colorado Army Guard’s First Female Infantry Officer

Second Lieutenant (2LT) Wednesday Nelson is big on having a plan.

In fact, her advice for anyone who’s joining the Army National Guard like she did is to plan ahead, because it can be challenging to finish Guard training, line up a civilian job, and be able to take time off from that job for annual training.

So far, her ability to strategize is paying off.

2LT Nelson joined the Guard in 2014, finishing out her junior and senior years at Arizona State University in the Reserve Officers’ Training Program (ROTC), where she drilled with a National Guard unit and ROTC at the same time in the Simultaneous Membership Program. ROTC is a college elective that allows students to earn a commission as a second lieutenant in the National Guard straight out of college.

2LT Nelson had considered joining active duty components of the military, but the criminal justice major also knew she wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement. Joining the Guard, where military service is a part-time commitment, was a way to do both.

“Not only would I get amazing training out of being in the Guard, but also, it would teach me time management, teamwork, and a lot of things I don’t think I could have gotten with just being a college student.”

There was also a financial benefit. 2LT Nelson earned a full-time Guard scholarship that paid for her last two years of college in exchange for her service.

By the time she was getting ready to receive her commission, the restrictions barring women from combat roles had been lifted, and 2LT Nelson commissioned as the first female 11A Infantry Officer in Colorado.

2LT Wednesday Nelson at her commissioning ceremony.

2LT Wednesday Nelson at her commissioning ceremony.

That part hadn’t been planned in advance, but it was lucky timing, she says. As the first woman in her State to serve as an infantry officer, “It was important to me to set a good standard for people to follow. I wanted to do the best that I could, and show that it wasn’t a mistake to have integration in the combat arm branches, infantry and armor.”

She chose infantry because of the challenge.

Of the four others in her class who chose to commission infantry, “all of the guys were studs, they were all pretty much the top of the class, very motivated and very dedicated, and they gave me an idea of what the branch was going to be like. I wanted to be competing with the best.”

Although 2LT Nelson was offered a position as an infantry officer in Arizona, she chose to join the Colorado Army National Guard and relocate there because it’s geographically halfway between where each of her parents lives, plus the Denver Police Department was her No. 1 choice for an employer. After she decided to move, she was accepted to the Denver Police Academy, where she starts next month.

In the meantime, as an infantry officer, her job is to train Soldiers who serve as the main land combat force in the military. She also hopes to be a role model for other women.

Her advice for women going into combat-related jobs, because integration is still new, also goes back to having a plan.

“You have to carry your own weight, plus more. You have to go into this prepared,” she says. “There are people who don’t want you there. There are people who do want you there. But regardless, you have to be consistent. You have to train up for it.”

So if you’re interested in training up to be part of the Army National Guard, one of the decisions you’ll make as you plan your future is what to choose for your Military Occupation Specialty (MOS). The Guard offers more than 150 options in fields like mechanics and maintenance, administration, intelligence, transportation and infantry or another combat specialty.

Explore careers on our job board, and for personalized assistance, contact a recruiter today, who can also explain benefits like tuition assistance and the GI Bill.

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Infantry Officer Reaps the Rewards of Service in Confidence, Leadership, and Camaraderie

While other kids were watching Cartoon Network, a young Travis Waller was watching the History channel. That’s partly his inspiration for wanting to join the military, but he also considers his part-time service in the Louisiana Army National Guard’s Infantry a tribute to his ancestors whose lives lacked today’s modern conveniences.

“We drive in our air-conditioned, climate-controlled boxes to work, we sit in our climate-controlled boxes at work, and there’s just nothing challenging,” says 1st Lieutenant (1LT) Waller. “I have this idea that our ancestors were the best of the best because they made it, and they got me here, so I kind of owe it to them to keep myself in the best of the best.”

In other words, he likes a challenge, and while he hasn’t deployed for a combat mission as yet, 1LT Waller is back from a recent weeklong stateside activation, helping to provide traffic control and security in New Orleans after tornadoes hit southeastern Louisiana in early February. 

“I’m really thankful that I’m able to help protect and serve our communities,” he says. “It’s something I’m really proud of.”

1LT Waller attended the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) while in college. It is an elective that allows students to earn a commission straight out of college as a second lieutenant in the Army Reserves or Army National Guard.

1LT Travis Waller

Despite living in Florida at the time, he joined the Louisiana Guard almost three years ago because the State had an opening for the military occupational specialty (MOS) he wanted – 11A Infantry Officer.

When he’s not serving in his Unit, 1LT Waller works in the private sector as a client support specialist at a company that processes payments to local governments. He’s also pursuing a master’s degree in business management that’s going to cost him roughly $2,500 out-of-pocket, thanks to the Guard’s tuition assistance.

“It’s been a lifesaver,” he says. “It’s crazy that I can get a master’s degree for $2,500.”

With a graduate degree in hand, he plans to help manage the business side of his wife’s photography business and move up the ladder in both of his careers.

“I want to advance myself in my civilian career, get myself into some sort of management position, and then on the military side, I hope it helps me move up the ranks on that end, too.”

As an officer, 1LT Waller enjoys being able to help develop Soldiers.

“I’m planning on staying for as long as they’ll keep me – 20 years or more. It really brings balance to my life.”

It’s also built up his confidence.

“I believe in myself, and I know I’m able to complete whatever task is given to me.”

His advice to anyone considering joining the Guard is “jump all in, be committed to it, and you’ll reap serious benefits from it, not just tangible benefits.”

The intangible benefits include leadership training, which 1LT Waller describes as second to none, plus the camaraderie that develops between Soldiers.

“I’ve been in fraternities, I’ve been in sports teams. Nothing compares to the sense of belonging that you find in the military.”

So, if you’re looking to join this team, one of the choices you’ll make is what career path to pursue. The Guard offers more than 150 choices in fields like artillery, medicine, engineering, and more. For more information, visit our job board and contact your local recruiter for personalized advice. 

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