The Year in Review: Guard Members Reflect on a Busy 2018 and Look Ahead to 2019

Soldiers with the North Carolina Army National Guard’s 690th Brigade Support Battalion assist North Carolina Department of Transportation personnel with recovering snowplows and assisting stuck drivers during a winter storm, Dec. 9, 2018. (Photo by SGT Joe Roudabush.)

ARLINGTON, Va. – The Army National Guard closed out a busy year that saw its members deploy overseas, take part in international training exercises, and respond to emergencies and large-scale natural disasters at home. 

Those natural disasters included two back-to-back hurricanes, starting with Hurricane Florence, which made landfall in mid-September along the North Carolina coast. After coming ashore, the storm moved slowly across the region, causing massive flooding and isolating many communities in North and South Carolina.

“We’ve dealt with this before, but not at these record levels,” said MG Bob Livingston, adjutant general of the South Carolina National Guard.

Ultimately, more than 6,600 Soldiers and Airmen from nearly 30 states supported civil authorities in response to Florence. The Guard was still responding to Florence when Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle in early October.

Within hours of the storm making landfall, the first elements of the Florida Army National Guard’s Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment, arrived in affected areas, providing not only security, but also general assistance to citizens.

“Our unit’s part was not only facilitating local agencies but [helping] the residents, so they can clean up, and at the same time feel like their stuff was secure when they were not home,” said SPC Victor R. Reyes-Soler.

Those storms were still yet to come when family, friends, and service members gathered in February for an award ceremony and remembrance of PFC Emmanuel Mensah, of the New York Army National Guard’s 107th Military Police Company. He died in an apartment fire in the Bronx, New York, after rescuing four people and heading back into the burning building to save others.

“Difficult though it may be, please think of this ceremony as an opportunity not to mourn, but to celebrate PFC Mensah, an unselfish Soldier of incredible bravery, who sacrificed his own life to save several others and while attempting to save more,” said LTG Timothy Kadavy, director of the Army National Guard, during the ceremony.

PFC Mensah, who died Dec. 28, 2017, was posthumously awarded the Soldier’s Medal, the Army’s highest award for bravery and valor outside of combat.

While LTG Kadavy and others remembered and honored PFC Mensah, other Guard members were responding to winter storms that clobbered many Eastern States during the early part of the year, helping stuck drivers and conducting wellness checks.

Winter weather also meant athletic competition, as Guard members took part in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. The Soldier-athletes, including four members of the New York Army National Guard, took part in the luge and bobsled events. CPT Mike Kohn of the Virginia Army National Guard served as the bobsled team’s assistant coach.

“I know that I can count on everybody on my team,” said SGT Justin Olsen, who competed in the four-man bobsled event. “Especially because they’re Soldiers. [The other team members] are extremely more accomplished in their military career than I am. So, whether they look up to me in the sport, I look up to them for what they’ve done off the ice.”

While none of the Soldiers received medals in the games, many will continue training for future competitions.

“Going to the Olympics isn’t enough for me,” said SGT Emily Sweeney, a luge athlete and military police officer with the New York Army Guard, who crashed during her final run in the 2018 games. “The work isn’t over.”

As winter faded into early spring, Guard members were called up to duty along the Southwest border, assisting U.S. Customs and Border Protection as part of Operation Guardian Support. Roughly 2,100 Guard members were on duty throughout the year at various locations along the border providing engineering, communications, vehicle, and logistical support.

In May, volcanic eruptions in Hawaii saw almost 400 Guard members from Hawaii and other States assist local authorities by monitoring air quality, evacuating affected areas, and providing security.

With summer heat came wildfires in many regions of California and other Western States, and Guard members responded.

California Army National Guard aircrews took on wildfire suppression duty, using UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters – the newest version of the venerable helicopter – to fight them. For aircrews, the new model made a difference.

“It’s a more efficient rotor system, particularly at the low airspeeds that we’re operating at with regard to firefighting operations,” said CW2 Doug Martine, a pilot with the California Army Guard’s 1st Assault Helicopter Battalion, 140th Aviation Regiment. “The engines are a little bit more unleashed, so we get some more torque and lift out of it.”

Guard members spent the fall months battling the Camp Fire, one of the largest wildfires in California history. For some, the wildfires proved to be extraordinarily challenging.

“It was definitely the most intense mode of flight that I’ve flown,” said 1LT Vincent Sherrill, another helicopter pilot with the 1/140th. “When you’re in a service mission like this, people’s homes are at risk, people’s lives are at risk, and you’re doing some pretty serious flying in some pretty serious conditions.”

While many Guard members were busy battling wildfires, others were battling cyber threats.

Cyber specialists throughout the Guard were not only on duty deterring cyber threats, but also took part in numerous training exercises throughout the year. That included Patriot Warrior, a training exercise held at Fort McCoy, Wis.

“These scenarios provide our Soldiers, and also the Airmen, with a very realistic outlook on what both entities could expect in the real world,” said MAJ Robert Bell, operations and plans officer with the Delaware Army National Guard’s 261st Theater Tactical Signal Brigade.

In addition to cyber exercises, Guard members also continued to participate in joint and multi-national exercises throughout the world.

More than 700 Soldiers from the Indiana Army National Guard’s 76th Infantry Brigade Combat Team took part in Pacific Pathways. The brigade served as the command and control element for the exercises, marking the first time a Guard unit has served in a leadership role overseeing the training event.

More than 18,000 service members from 19 countries participated in Saber Strike, held in Poland and the Baltic region of Europe. For Soldiers with the Michigan Army National Guard’s 464th Quartermaster Company, that meant running 24-hour operations to provide laundry and shower services for many of those taking part.

“We are here to help boost the morale of the Soldier,” said SGT Carlo Grier. “There is nothing better than a hot shower and clean clothes after a long day’s work.”

Other Army Guard Soldiers took part in brigade training rotations at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., or the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La. Those and other training scenarios were part of Army Guard 4.0, which represents the next step in realistic, intensive training to prepare for deployment. As part of that, Soldiers spend more time in the field honing their skills, allowing the Guard to deploy more quickly and effectively to a variety of missions worldwide.

“Our high-priority units – such as armored brigade combat teams, Stryker brigade combat teams, attack-reconnaissance battalions, and critical enablers – must be ready on short notice for unspecified missions,” said LTG Kadavy, the Army Guard director of Army Guard 4.0. “We have to maintain the readiness of these units in order to respond to emerging demands.”

That increased focus was clear to Soldiers with the Kentucky Army National Guard’s 149th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, who, in June, took part in a two-week training exercise directly tied to the Army Guard 4.0 initiative.

“It definitely felt like we were on deployment,” said SGT Dustin Mullins. “The brigade trained much closer together, and the tempo was much faster.”

That focus on more intensive training was brought home to many Guard units that deployed this year. Many of those deployments were to Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, and the Horn of Africa.

PVT Hayden Johnson, center, a cavalry scout with the Mississippi Army National Guard’s Troop B, 1st Squadron, 98th Cavalry Regiment, aims an FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile during a combined arms live fire exercise as part of Desert Observer II at the Udairi Range Complex near Camp Buehring, Kuwait, Dec. 12, 2018. (Photo by SPC Jovi Prevot.)

PVT Hayden Johnson, center, a cavalry scout with the Mississippi Army National Guard’s Troop B, 1st Squadron, 98th Cavalry Regiment, aims an FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile during a combined arms live fire exercise as part of Desert Observer II at the Udairi Range Complex near Camp Buehring, Kuwait, Dec. 12, 2018. (Photo by SPC Jovi Prevot.)

For about 220 Soldiers with the New York Army Guard’s 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, deployment meant serving in Ukraine to work with and mentor Ukrainian army units. Part of the Joint Multinational Training Group – Ukraine, the Soldiers focused on training based on interoperability with NATO elements.

The year 2018 marked significant milestones for the Guard.

In May, the Guard celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Department of Defense’s State Partnership Program (SPP), which pairs National Guard elements with partner nations worldwide. The SPP now includes 75 partnerships with 81 countries. The 75th partnership – the West Virginia National Guard and Qatar – was announced in May.

“I think it’s a testament to the men and women of the West Virginia National Guard, to our governor, to our [elected officials] who all came together to say we want to be a broader part of the Nation’s defense and take on an even greater role with the establishment of this partnership with Qatar,” said MG James Hoyer, adjutant general of the West Virginia Guard.

November 2018 also marked the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, a war that saw more than 103,000 Guard members killed or wounded.

“We remember the battles that raged here in the fields, the forests, and the towns,” said GEN Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau, during a ceremony marking the occasion. “We also remember the sacrifice made in the cause of freedom – because the United States honors her war dead.”

The National Guard comprised 18 of the 43 Army divisions the United States sent to France in World War I.

While some reflected on the Guard’s part in the First World War, others looked to new roles the Guard took on in 2018. The headquarters of the 54th Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) was activated this year as part of the Indiana Army National Guard. One of six such brigades throughout the total Army, the SFABs focus on training, advising, and assisting forces of partner and allied nations.

“When deployed, SFAB Soldiers will be the day-to-day experts combatant commanders need to train, advise, and assist [allied and partner security forces],” said MG Courtney P. Carr, adjutant general of the Indiana National Guard.

Training and preparation were among the key elements at play in early December when the District of Columbia National Guard took part in the state funeral of former President George H.W. Bush, who died in Houston on Nov. 30 at age 94.

“The goal is to make it look like it was easy,” said MAJ Mark Ballantyne, operations officer and mission planner with the D.C. Guard’s Multi-agency Augmentation Command. “Because then, that means we did our job right.”

As 2019 unfolds, the Guard is prepared to continue its legacy of taking on any mission – here at home or overseas.

As you look ahead in this new year, consider being a part of something bigger. With the opportunity to serve in your home State, learn lifelong transferrable skills, and make a difference in your country and community, the Army National Guard can be your ticket to a college degree and the adventure of a lifetime. Explore current opportunities on our job board or contact a local recruiter today.

From an original article by Tech. Sgt. Erich B. Smith and Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy, which appeared in the News section of NationalGuard.mil in December 2018.

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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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The Ultimate Special Forces Soldier: Team Players with Brains and Brawn

All graduates of the Special Forces qualification course are military free-fall or HALO parachutists, while many others will receive follow-on training to become combat divers or proficient mountaineers, depending upon the type of team to which they are assigned.

All graduates of the Special Forces qualification course are military free-fall or HALO parachutists, while many others will receive follow-on training to become combat divers or proficient mountaineers, depending upon the type of team to which they are assigned.

If all you’ve ever wanted is to serve your country and join an elite team that carries out difficult and often dangerous missions by land, sea or air, the Army National Guard’s Special Forces could be for you.

But it’s definitely not for everyone.

You’ve got to be a top performer from a physical and mental standpoint, and you’re going to carry out missions that you cannot talk about. In fact, the Special Forces Soldier On Your Guard interviewed for this blog does not want to use his real name. We’ll call him Staff Sergeant (SSG) Jones, and with 6 years of experience as a Soldier, and 4 years as a Green Beret, he has more advice to share.

Having the right combination of smarts and physical endurance is “just enough to get you into the door. From there, you really have to have a burning desire to win and to achieve. But it’s tempered with the understanding that winning isn’t an individual event. It’s a team event.”     

The most important thing, he says, is the Soldier’s ability to work with others, especially in challenging environments.

“In order to function effectively as a team, you can’t be labeled as an individual. That just won’t work.”

SSG Jones took a roundabout route to joining his Special Forces Unit in Florida, enlisting at age 32 after selling a business he started. Having had no prior military experience, he enlisted as an 11B Infantryman under a contract called REP 63, which guaranteed him the right to try out for Special Forces. (You can read more about the process and requirements for non-prior military to join the Green Berets on our website).

Inspired to join the military in some capacity after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, SSG Jones, whose civilian career is in aerospace finance, researched other special operations branches in the military before landing on the U.S. Army Special Forces, and ultimately through the Guard.

“Rangers and Seals are primarily a direct action force,” he says. “So they’ll operate out of a base, go out and conduct a mission, such as a raid, and generally come back in a fairly short order.”

Special Forces, however, are trained to persist behind enemy lines. SSG Jones says his team will embed with indigenous forces and guerrillas in difficult environments to train them.

“We’ll work with the guerrillas and develop the battlefield ourselves, create our own mission sets and execute those missions,” he says. “There’s really no other Special Operations unit that can do quite what we do, spending months at a time embedded with these foreign organizations.”

To be able to communicate effectively, each Soldier is proficient in a foreign language. Part of the Special Forces qualification course is six months of intensive language training, where SSG Jones learned Arabic. Soldiers are also expected to maintain not only their language skills afterward, but their skills in general.

“We do a lot of follow-on training, so the training never really ends. The qualification course may end, but you’re really expected to build upon what you’ve learned.”

Even within the Green Berets there are different teams of 12, Operational Detachment Alpha, ODA’s or “A-teams” for short, and each Soldier within that ODA will have a specialty. SSG Jones, who serves on a dive team, is an 18C Special Forces Engineer Sergeant. These Soldiers excel at engineering tasks like demolition and construction in austere environments, while others specialize in intelligence, communications (from satellites to Morse code), medicine (trauma and general care), and weapons.

Check out this short video for a closer look at what Special Forces does.

Because part of the Guard’s mission is to serve the community, Special Forces can also be called up for stateside missions. The Green Berets are especially suited for the task because they are rapidly deployable, says SSG Jones. During a recent hurricane, some men on his team did search and rescue missions by boat.

And while SSG Jones can’t give specifics on his missions overseas, he can share, as an example of his team’s capabilities, that he completed a training mission that involved underwater infiltration of a military port where the team dove from a civilian fishing boat, set up demolition charges, and exited the area on a different fishing boat undetected in an area with heavy shipping lane traffic. Plus, the entire mission was conducted with a partner force in Arabic.

“It’s fun and it’s exciting,” he says, of his Special Forces work.

But it’s a serious job for dedicated Soldiers, so SSG Jones encourages anyone pursuing a green beret to “make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. I think Hollywood and video games have made special operations, in general, seem really sexy.”

In reality, the road to becoming a Green Beret is rough.

“Probably 90 percent of that road is being cold, wet, and miserable or utterly exhausted and sleep deprived, and on the verge of a heat injury,” says SSG Jones. “So for the Soldier who thinks it’s all about jumping out of airplanes, diving, shooting bad guys, and talking yourself up at a bar … it’s probably not the right profession for you.”

What Special Forces really needs, he says are “strong, tough, intelligent Soldiers who are willing to put the mission before themselves.”

So if you’re interested in joining a team that puts the mission of serving the country and community above all else, there are plenty of ways to do that in the Guard, where you’ll serve part-time. The Guard offers more than 150 careers, from infantry and armor and field artillery to engineering and transportation. You can check out all of the possibilities on our job board and be sure to take a look at the Guard’s outstanding benefits like money for college.

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