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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Kentucky Guard Member Lets Strength and Courage Define Her

Newly appointed Warrant Officer Natalie Wamsley salutes her husband, Chief Warrant Officer Ronald Wamsley, during a commissioning ceremony in Frankfort, Ky., March 19, 2019. Wamsley completed Warrant Officer Candidate School while battling cancer. (Photo by SFC Scott Raymond).

Newly appointed Warrant Officer Natalie Wamsley salutes her husband, Chief Warrant Officer Ronald Wamsley, during a commissioning ceremony in Frankfort, Ky., March 19, 2019. Wamsley completed Warrant Officer Candidate School while battling cancer. (Photo by SFC Scott Raymond).

FRANKFORT, Ky. – In late March of 2018, Natalie Wamsley was finishing up Warrant Officer Candidate School (WOCS), maxing her last Army Physical Fitness Test, and taking another successful step in her 16-year military career. On April 6th, she found out she had cancer.

While at WOCS, she felt a lump, but disregarded it as muscle soreness from the intense physical fitness. A couple weeks after she returned home and many sleepless nights, she went to her doctor. After an ultrasound and a biopsy, her doctor called her in for an appointment.

“I knew immediately what that meant,” she says. “All they would tell me was I had cancer; not how bad, how big, nothing like that. When you don’t know facts, your mind tends to spin out of control.”

What Natalie did know was how torturous the week was before speaking with a surgeon. She was told she had an aggressive form of cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes and that it had developed three months prior.

“I thought, ‘I am too young for this. I have a lot more life to live. I have a husband and two very small children. I have a lot to live for. But he said I was curable, so I continued to stay positive.’”

Thanks to recent developments in science, doctors said she had a fighting chance. And fight she did.

Natalie enlisted in the Army National Guard while she was still in high school in 2003. She joined because of her grandfather’s military service and her involvement in Junior ROTC. She comes from a long line of veterans but was the first woman in her family to join. She served as a 42A Human Resource Specialist at the company and brigade level, including a deployment to Iraq in 2011.

When she took a job at the State’s personnel office, she was mentored by Chief Warrant Officer Larry Arnett, who told her she would make a great warrant officer. She already knew about warrant officers because her husband, Ronald Wamsley, is one and serves as a network engineer with the State information and technology office.

“She was already looked upon as an expert in her field,” he says. “She has excellent PT scores and shows good leadership skills.”

Natalie says that mentorship and the desire to be a better version of herself drove her to the warrant officer path.

“I hope that I can be a role model for my children one day and show them they can do anything if they work hard and have the right people to guide them.”

That aggressive nature runs through Natalie in all she does. Less than two weeks after learning she had cancer, she started a high dose of chemotherapy. After six rounds, the doctors were not satisfied and began a more intense regimen – eight more rounds, followed by surgery.

“I was told I had a ‘stubborn’ cancer, and the surgery didn’t get it all, so they decided on more rounds of chemo.”

There were good days and bad, many laughs and cries. Mentally she remained strong, but physically, it was a different story. Days when she couldn’t pick her children up broke her heart, but not her determination.

“I was so scared I would lose her,” her husband recalls. “But we focused on one thing at a time. She made things so much easier by being so resilient. She would apologize to me because she was too sick to help with the kids, but I said, ‘Don’t worry about it, I got this.’ When she lost her hair, it didn’t even phase her. She still went to work and didn’t even cover up her hair loss. She always maintained a positive attitude.”

She was then prescribed radiation therapy, which she currently receives five days a week – all while preparing to be commissioned as a warrant officer.

“I was unsure how my appointment would go. I kept telling myself, if it is not my time, it’s not my time. There will be other opportunities. But working out throughout my treatments helped my spirit, along with the strength and love of my husband, children, and my Guard family.”

Natalie came off chemotherapy in January and took her fitness test in order to commission. She passed, impressing herself with her score. She was commissioned in March in front of a large crowd of friends and colleagues, all inspired by the woman standing in front of them.

She was pinned by her husband who said he had never been prouder of Natalie. Together the Wamsleys are the only warrant officer husband-wife pair in the Kentucky Army National Guard. Both remain so grateful for the support they both have received from their Guard family.

When you ask those friends, Guardsmen, and civilians to describe Natalie, you get “hero,” “fighter,” and “inspiration.” Her husband calls her a beast for her consistently solid PT scores. She doesn’t see or think of herself as a hero at all, saying “Everyone has their battles, this is just part of my fight and my story.”

Lieutenant Colonel Travis Carpenter, Deputy Director of Personnel for the Kentucky National Guard, says a hero is someone who you wish to emulate and someone who has attributes you wish you had, like superpowers.

“Everyone has their idea of a hero,” he says. “[Natalie] Wamsley is a personal hero of mine. She not only succeeded in a time of adversity, she excelled in a time that others may not.”

Natalie recalls her mantra during treatment: “Your illness does not define you, your strength and courage does. Everyone has their own fight, it’s how you come out of it. I hope that I am a better person going through this, and I hope through my story I can encourage someone to fight because this life is worth living.”

Natalie’s Guard family has played an important role in helping her overcome defeat. If you’re looking for a strong bond, a lifetime of adventure, and a place to call home, consider joining the Army National Guard. With more than 130 career opportunities in fields like aviation, engineering, and armor and field artillery, you can find your fit and reap the benefits of part-time service close to home. To learn more about how you can make a difference in your community and country, contact a local recruiter today!

From an original article by SFC Scott Raymond, Kentucky National Guard, which appeared in the news section of NationalGuard.mil in April 2019.


 

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A Guard Soldier’s Journey from Truck Driver to Attorney

In his eight years of part-time service with the Illinois Army National Guard, Jacob Smith has gotten some big benefits – leadership skills, a sense of direction in life, and his undergraduate and law degrees, courtesy of the Guard’s education benefits.

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.

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.

Search our job board for details on careers in engineering, administration, infantry, armor and field artillery, aviation, medicine, military police, intelligence, mechanic and maintenance, transportation, and logistics support.

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