Guard Soldier’s Desire to Do More Leads to Dream Job Training Dogs

They say, “do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

For Sergeant (SGT) Giovanna Donofrio, this statement holds true as she moves into the sixth year of her military career. She’s turned her passion into purpose, and found a job that she truly loves waking up for in the morning.

At age 20, SGT Donofrio was attending school, but lacked the feeling that she was making an impact. With the desire to do something different with her life, she decided to join the military.

“I needed to do something that made me feel like I was helping people more,” she says. “When I joined, I was pretty excited to feel like I was actually contributing.”

Upon leaving active duty six years later, she knew she wanted to continue her service. She transitioned to the Connecticut Army National Guard, so she could serve close to home and work in the Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) she wanted.

“When I was getting out of active duty, I [kind of] didn’t want to because I was going to miss it so much. But now that I’m in the National Guard, I’m still able to do everything I love.”

SGT Donofrio started her military career as a 91B Light-Wheel Vehicle Mechanic, and two years later, re-classed as a 31K Military Working Dog Handler – an MOS she felt passionate about.

SGT Donofrio and Schurkje pose in front of the flag at the Newtown Military Working Dog Kennels in Connecticut.

Connecticut, home to the only National Guard kennel in the U.S., is the perfect fit for SGT Donofrio. She gets to do what she loves by working with dogs, and she’s a wife and mother of three children, so being able to spend time with her family is a priority. Serving in the Army National Guard gives her the flexibility to do both.

“It’s been very beneficial for me. I love what I do, and I love being able to wear the uniform,” she says. “I love my job and being able to go home every day and see my family.”

SGT Donofrio currently works full time alongside her furry partner, Schurkje (pronounced Shur-key), a 6-year-old Belgian Malinois, specializing in drug detection.

“You’re assigned a military working dog, and depending on what kind of dog it is, whether it’s a drug dog or explosive dog, you train with this dog, and you become a team,” she explains. “Then you go out on missions to either find explosives or drugs.”

To become a dog handler, Guard members must attend Military Police training at Fort Leonard Wood for 7 weeks, followed by K9 training at Lackland Airforce Base for 11 weeks, where they learn how to handle a dog. Once complete, they’re assigned a military working dog, and go through a certification process before being able to deploy. SGT Donofrio and Schurkje are currently working toward their certification.

To get certified, Soldiers and their K9s must go through 3 to 5 days of what’s called a Detection Lane – an exercise that tests a dog’s ability to sniff out a hidden training aid, either narcotics or explosives, depending on the type of dog. The handler watches for any change in behavior, indicating the dog has detected the items.

Then they have patrol, which includes controlled aggression, a scout, and a building search, followed by obedience training in an obstacle course, and an exercise featuring gunfire to ensure the K9 won’t act aggressively or shy away if it comes under fire.

SGT Giovanna Donofrio watches as Schurkje hurdles over an obstacle in the obedience course at the Newtown Military Working Dog Kennels in Connecticut.

“As far as Schurkje goes, he is great with gunfire, and just sits there next to me perfectly fine,” boasts SGT Donofrio.

Even though they can’t run missions just yet, SGT Donofrio and Schurkje are given opportunities elsewhere. This past March, in honor of K9 Veterans Day, the pair, alongside other members of the Connecticut Army National Guard’s 928th Military Working Dog Detachment, were presented with an official citation from the General Assembly at the State Capitol, recognizing them for their service. This, she says, has been one of her most fulfilling moments in the Guard thus far.

Not only does she love her job, she also enjoys all the benefits the Guard has to offer. With the Guard’s tuition assistance, she attends school full time, working toward her bachelor’s degree in accounting, and recently, she was able to purchase a new home using the VA loan benefit.

When she’s off the clock, SGT Donofrio enjoys hanging out with her Pomsky (half Pomeranian/half Husky), spending time with her family, painting, going to Zumba, horseback riding, and coaching cheerleading.

The Army National Guard offers the flexibility you need to live a well-balanced life. With more than 130 career options in fields like military police, medicine, and infantry, you, too, can find a job that you love, with benefits that help support you, your lifestyle, and your family. Contact a local recruiter to learn more today.

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How I Got My College Degree for Free

The Army National Guard Paid for It

Between the Army National Guard’s Federal tuition assistance, State tuition assistance, and GI Bill, Sergeant First Class (SFC) Ryan West earned his bachelor’s degree for free.

He estimates that between the special military rates offered by the schools he attended and the Guard’s education benefits, he has saved $30,000 to $40,000 in tuition and fees.

Without the Guard picking up the tab, SFC West’s other options to pay for school were using his GI Bill from his previous active duty service in the Army or student loans.

SFC Ryan West, a Medical Readiness Non-Commissioned Officer with the South Carolina Army National Guard.

SFC Ryan West, a Medical Readiness Non-Commissioned Officer with the South Carolina Army National Guard.

“I was raised in a single-parent home, there just wasn’t money for college,” he explains.

SFC West, a Medical Readiness Non-Commissioned Officer with the South Carolina Army National Guard, has had a few stops and starts on his way to earning that degree. He had started college before joining the Army in 1998, but, “It didn’t work out for me. The money wasn’t there, plus I wasn’t that disciplined.”

So, he joined the military, something he had wanted to do since he was a child.

“I’m from a small town, Hopkins, South Carolina, so I wanted to get out and see the world, see new places, and meet new people,” says SFC West. “And, of course, defend my country. There’s nothing like it. You get a great reward from serving.”

After leaving active duty in 2002, SFC West wanted to continue his service, so he joined the Guard because he liked the idea of serving part-time, especially so he could go back to school.

But then he deployed to Iraq, which marked a complete turnaround in how he looked at his career.

“Prior to that, I was just a traditional Guardsman, just going through the motions, coming to drill. I didn’t really have aspirations of going higher in the ranks or being better than what I was.”

Experiencing what he did while deployed in Iraq as a 68W Healthcare Specialist (combat medic) – the inhumanity of war and even meeting new people from different places, made him realize he could reach higher.

It was after coming home that SFC West realized all of the Guard benefits he could use to complete his degree.

“You get funds from three different sources, which is great,” SFC West says. “You don’t get that in the Reserves, and you don’t get that in the regular Army.”

The Guard offers Federal tuition assistance. Plus, each State or Territory offers State tuition assistance, but note that each State or Territory has its own rules and policies. Finally, the GI Bill can pick up the tab for books, fees, or really anything. This money is a monthly expense allowance paid directly to the student, not the school.

 

SFC West and his family at his college graduation.

Armed with all of these financial resources and a renewed sense of purpose, SFC West re-started his studies at Limestone College in South Carolina, but then decided to take a full-time job with the Guard. As 2014 came into view, he decided to go back to school “to finish this thing before I retire,” finally earning his bachelor’s in organizational leadership from the University of South Carolina.

And, he might not be done using up all those education benefits. He still has some of his post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to transfer to his children, and he can still use the Guard’s tuition assistance to earn a master’s degree he’s thinking about getting.

His advice for anyone joining the Guard is: “Let the Guard get the most out of you, and you get the most out of the Guard.”

And that means taking advantage of all the opportunities it offers, including making the most of the education benefits.

“That paycheck means nothing if you stay five or six years and you don’t have a degree – a free degree,” he says.

So if you’re looking for a way to pay for college, or even vocational school, the Guard offers those benefits and more, like training in careers ranging from medicine and engineering to field artillery and logistics. You can explore all of the Guard’s career fields on our job board.

And, for personalized advice, including specifics on your State’s education benefits because the information varies from State to State, contact your local recruiter.

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Army National Guard Offers a Way to Pay Federal Student Loans

One of the Army National Guard’s best selling points is its ability to help pay for its Soldiers’ educations.

There are many paths to earning a degree without incurring a ton of debt or any debt at all, like the Guard’s Federal and State tuition assistance programs, but one benefit the Guard offers – the Student Loan Repayment Program – can pay down balances on Federal student loans a Soldier already has.

CPT Peter Brookes, the Enlisted Incentives Program Manager with the Army National Guard, explains: “The gist of it is that we pay 15% or $500 a year of the overall Federal student loans you have when you join the Guard, up to $50,000, inclusive of interest for a 6 year commitment.”

The most important caveat for the program, says CPT Brookes, is that the money goes to the lending institution – not the Soldier. Also, it’s not a one-time check to the lender. For example, for a Guard member who has $50,000 in Federal student loans, the Guard would pay 15% per each individual loan of that balance, up to $7,500 per year.

The Student Loan Repayment Program (SLRP) applies to only Federal loans. State loans and private loans do not qualify.

There are also requirements associated with a Soldier’s status within the Guard. Different standards apply for new Soldiers coming in with no prior service, Soldiers who have prior military service, and those who are already serving in the Guard.

CPT Brookes says for anyone new coming into the Guard, there are three basic eligibility requirements for SLRP – Soldiers must be high school graduates who are moving into a vacant position in the Guard and have a minimum Armed Forces Qualifying Test score of 50 and established Federal student loan debt.

As of this writing, CPT Brookes says new Soldiers can pick one of three incentives between SLRP, the Montgomery GI Bill Kicker, which is $350 a month that goes to a Soldier who’s enrolled in college, for up to 36 months, or a Non-Prior Service Enlistment Bonus for $7,500.

Some of those incentives can be combined with the Guard’s education benefits, which CPT Brookes describes as “unparalleled.”

“When you consider that for the vast majority of us, [Guard service] is a part-time job, it’s pretty phenomenal, he says. “I can’t even think of a civilian equivalent out there for education benefits for a part-time job.”

Not only can Soldiers take advantage of potentially earning free degrees through State Tuition Assistance Programs (programs vary by State), “you can still go and get your [Montgomery GI Bill] Kicker as well,” says CPT Brookes. “So basically you’re getting paid to go to college.”

NationalGuard.com outlines all of the Guard’s benefits, but CPT Brookes says recruiters are the best source for information on benefits, incentives, or bonuses that apply to each State.

Your local recruiter can also help you decide on the job you’ll train to do in the Guard, called your Military Occupational Specialty (MOS). For more information on Guard careers, check out our job board, where you can research more than 150 options in fields ranging from administration, to infantry, engineering, military intelligence, and more.

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