Specialist (SPC) Travis Cooper is a member of the Alaska Army National Guard, but he lives in Vermont, more
than 4,000 miles away from his Unit. That kind of distance would probably break
the record for longest commute to drill. However, he’s exempt from his monthly
duty because he’s part of the Army National Guard’s Biathlon Team.
For 10 1/2 to 11 months of the year, SPC Cooper is on official
orders – he’s either in training or competing in biathlons, which combine
cross-country skiing with target shooting.
Even when it isn’t snowing, the Alaska native is competing in the
summer version of his sport by zipping up and down paved pathways on
rollerskis. In fact, SPC Cooper won the 2019 U.S. National Biathlon Rollerski
Championship in August. This victory puts him one step closer to earning a
starting spot in the World Cup Championships in Europe this winter as a member
of his other team – the U.S. Biathlon Men’s National Team.
He’s also hoping to compete in the 2022 Olympics in Beijing – but
not stop there.
“The Olympics is probably the highest goal I’d like to achieve,
but I’m determined to go two or three Olympic cycles.”
SPC Cooper joined the Guard four years ago at the suggestion of a
family friend and member of the Wyoming Army National Guard Biathlon Team. He
was put in touch with recruiters in Alaska and, from there, the Guard’s
biathlon team coaches in Jericho, Vt.
Growing up, he knew the military could be a career option – as a
child he’d dreamed of becoming a Navy Seal or a firefighter, but “the Guard
opportunity was too good to pass up.” He likes the challenge of competing in a
physically and mentally demanding sport.
SPC Cooper chose 91L
Construction Vehicle Repairer for his military occupational specialty (MOS)
for strategic reasons. It came with a signing bonus,
a relatively short training period, plus “it’s a pretty practical job and skill
to learn. I had my sights on doing biathlon, and so anything that could get me
and back to Vermont to start biathlon the fastest was my goal.”
A competitive skier since the seventh grade, SPC Cooper, 23, made
the National Guard team off the bat, despite having limited biathlon experience
– he’d done a couple of camps with a local club back in Alaska. He had the
skiing part down pat. It’s the marksmanship part that he finds more
“In shooting, it can change day-to-day. We have races when it’s
calm out or when it’s gale-force 50-mile-an-hour winds, so we need to make sight
adjustments for those winds.”
Experience is also a factor.
“There are people who’ve been shooting ten years longer than I
have. Their muscle memory when it comes to holding the rifle is just so much
better than mine is.”
Competitions have taken him to 13 different countries, and he’s
made many friends along the way.
“Especially being a National Guard athlete, I’ve met so many
people from across the country. I know Colonels from Utah and Privates from
Rhode Island. The National Guard is a very big family. I like the camaraderie
When he does make it home to Alaska, about twice a year, “I’ll go
check in with my Unit, even if it’s not a drill weekend, to try to make up some
days and do some extra things for them.”
One of the benefits of serving in the Army National Guard is that
it provides money
for college. SPC Cooper plans to take advantage of that in the near future,
and someday try out for the Guard’s
Special Forces. But for now,
biathlon “is my military and civilian career wrapped into one.”
His advice for anyone considering joining the Guard is, “Weigh
all your options, but I think it’s an incredible opportunity to further
yourself in life in general. I think it’s a pretty incredible organization.
Determine what you want and go for it.”
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Tiara Puro was 17 when her father handed her a recruiting brochure for the Army National Guard. She remembers a feeling of excitement as she flipped through the pamphlet, especially when she read about the education benefits. She had been trying to figure out a way to pay for college, and the Utah Army National Guard was offering the equivalent of a full-ride scholarship for six years of service.
“When I enlisted, it was peacetime,”
Tiara says. “There was nothing going on, and it was actually why I felt so
comfortable agreeing to enlist. What’s six years of an enlistment during
peacetime, especially if I get a college degree out of it?”
Tiara enlisted in 1999 as a 27D paralegal specialist. Once a month, she drove to the armory in Vernal to train until she finished high school. A week after graduating, she shipped to Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson, S.C.
Tiara is the oldest of five sisters.
Her four younger sisters are Tambra, Tayva, and twins, Taryn and Ty’lene. They
all grew up in Roosevelt and graduated from Union High School. Their parents
had met on the University of Utah ballroom dance team. All five sisters grew up
singing and dancing. Four of the five sisters have placed in the Miss Duchesne
County and Miss Uintah Basin pageants.
While large, musically inclined
families are not uncommon in Utah, the Puro sisters are unique in that they are
all currently serving in the military, with decorated careers spanning the
Army, Air Force, and Navy.
“I don’t think any one of us thought
that we would serve in the military,” says Tiara.
Tambra was 14 years old and a freshman
in high school when Tiara left for basic. “It was a little scary, a little
nerve-racking to think about her going off and doing all those things,” Tambra
recalls. “But I just thought, ‘wow, that’s pretty awesome.’”
A few months later, Tiara returned home
– the experience had changed her.
“I came home super excited about being
in the military and what that meant,” she says.
As Tiara described the experience to
her family, Tambra thought, “That will never happen in my life. It’s not
something I’m interested in. Who wants to be yelled at by drill sergeants and
do push-ups? I can’t even do a push-up, let alone pass a PT test. So, no thank
you. I’ll do something else.”
Even at 12 years old, Tambra knew she
wanted to do something important with her life.
“At the time, I was really interested
in being a nurse, so I went and asked the hospital if I could volunteer.”
Tambra was the youngest volunteer the
hospital had ever seen. She formed a group of young hospital volunteers called
the Junior Pink Ladies. As a sophomore in high school, she started working on
her Associate of Science degree in Pre-Health Sciences.
“Caring for others is a common thread
in my life,” Tambra says. “That’s really what I’m passionate about.”
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001,
Tiara was at the University of Utah, when her father called her and said, “You
need to turn on your TV.”
When she heard his unsettled tone, she
went into the living room of her college apartment and switched on the TV. She
watched the second plane collide with the South Tower of the World Trade
“I knew in that moment my life would
never be the same,” she recalls.
Tiara told her dad she loved him, but
she needed to go. She hung up and immediately called her unit to find out what
she could do to help.
The 2002 Winter Olympics came only a
few short months after 9/11. Approximately 2,400 athletes from more than 80
countries, and even more spectators, were headed to Utah. Under the looming
shadow of terrorism, the burden of law enforcement augmentation fell to the
Utah Army National Guard. More than 4,500 Guard members were called up to
provide security for the games, and Tiara was among them.
Tambra was a high school senior on the
first anniversary of 9/11. She listened to a speech by President Bush as she
was getting ready for school and thought to herself, “Where am I going in life?
How will I pay for things? What’s my next step?”
“For members of our military,” President
Bush said, “it’s been a year of sacrifice and service far from home.”
Tambra immediately reflected on her
own sister’s sacrifice and service, and said to herself, “That’s what I want to
do. Tiara did it, I think I can do it. I’m not very aggressive, I don’t do
those physical things, but I can try.”
The same recruiter who worked with
Tiara three years earlier happened to see Tambra at school that day and asked,
“Have you given it any thought?”
Tambra replied “Yes,” and two weeks later, she enlisted in the Army National Guard to be an administrative specialist, assigned to the same unit as her sister.
“I really wanted to be a combat medic,” Tambra says, “But I also really wanted to start college as soon as possible. I chose the shorter occupational school.”
At the time, the Utah National Guard
offered an orientation course called Non-Prior Service Support which helped
prepare future Soldiers for Basic Combat Training. The course was conducted by
a retired Marine drill instructor and designed to be physically grueling. Today,
this same program has been expanded into the Recruit Sustainment Program.
“It just about killed me,” recalls Tambra.
“I couldn’t sit up on my own for two full weeks.”
Realizing she had a lot of work to do,
she started doing push-ups and sit-ups and went running every single day until
she graduated high school. She was headed to Fort Jackson in March 2003.
Around that same time, Tiara’s unit
received a mobilization order.
“In the Guard we’re always ready. We’re
always exercising and training, so we were ready when the call came,” she says.
In April of 2003, Tiara’a unit headed
to Iraq while Tambra was in the middle of basic training.
“The training felt very real to me because
my sister was already in Iraq,” says Tambra.
Tambra would see newspapers in display
cases outside the dining facility where she ate each day, headlining the
toppled Saddam Hussein statue. As she donned her gas mask and entered the gas
chambers, she imagined Hussein’s chemical attacks on innocent civilians and
thought, “Wow. This is why we do what we do.”
When Tambra returned home from basic
training, she immediately enrolled in Utah Valley State College using her new
military education benefits, and joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). Even before enlistment, she had considered becoming
an officer, but wanted the added experience of
Tambra graduated in the spring of 2005,
with a degree in community health and military science. She was assigned to the
144th Area Support Medical Company as a medical services officer. As soon as
she finished Officer Basic Course, she was headed to Fort Bliss, Texas, where
her unit was preparing to deploy to Iraq.
Meanwhile, Tiara had returned from her
own deployment and decided to reenlist, but this time in the Utah Air National
Guard as a personnel specialist.
Then in 2010, the twins, Taryn and
Ty’lene, graduated high school.
“I wanted to be a veterinarian,” says Ty’lene.
“I kind of had it in my mind that I wanted to be an Army veterinarian, but I
wanted to wait about a year after graduation to make sure the military was
actually something that I wanted to do for myself, not just following in my
She went to Weber State University
with a music scholarship. One year after graduation, she met with the recruiter
on campus and decided to enlist. The officer who administered the Oath of
Enlistment was none other than Ty’lene’s older sister, Tambra, who had recently
returned from her Iraq deployment.
Ty’lene joined under the Simultaneous Membership Program, planning to return to Weber State’s ROTC
program after completing basic training, but
plans changed when she had her first taste of the military.
“I fell in love with the Army mindset,”
While still at Advanced
Individual Training, Ty’lene applied
for several full-time positions in the Utah National Guard. Two weeks later,
she was working as an admin assistant in the Guard. Not long after that, she
joined the Utah Guard Biathlon team and brought home two second-place medals
from her first regional competition. She would go on to take first place in the
2015 Utah Best Warrior Competition, to become the Soldier of the Year.
Today, Tambra and Ty’lene serve in the
Army National Guard, Tiara and Tayva serve in the Air Guard, and Taryn serves
in the Navy.
“We’re intertwined,” Ty’lene says.
“Even though we all have such different military careers, we’re all still
“My parents raised us to know our strengths
and to always try our hardest, to tell the truth and be brave,” says Tiara. “To
do things that scare us. To eat the food that’s put in front of us, whether we
like it or not. If you look at the way my mom and dad raised us, those skills
are what helped us to adapt to serve in the military.”
When asked about what it’s like having
five daughters serving in the military, Steve Puro says, “It’s the scariest
thing you’ll ever be proud of. My girls have grown in the military. As a dad, I
know they are going to be OK, because they have learned to stand on their own
two feet and take charge of their lives.”
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.
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.