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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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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Guard Drill Sergeant Hands out Hard Truths, but also Motivates Recruits to Prepare them for Basic Training

SFC Shereka Danzy conducts drill exercises at the Recruit Sustainment Program in the New Jersey Army National Guard.

SFC Shereka Danzy conducts drill exercises at the Recruit Sustainment Program in the New Jersey Army National Guard.

If you’re thinking about joining the Army National Guard, there’s something you should know. Your recruiter, that person who kindly answers all your questions and guides you through the enlistment process, might just also turn out to be … your drill sergeant.

As Sergeant First Class (SFC) Shereka Danzy likes to say of her recruits, “I put them in boots, and then I yell at them.”

The New Jersey Army National Guard recruiter also happens to be a drill sergeant for the State’s Recruit Sustainment Program (RSP), a mandatory program designed for Soldiers who’ve enlisted and have not yet gone to Basic Training, or Soldiers who’ve gone to Basic and have yet to go to Advanced Individual Training (AIT) for their military occupational specialty (MOS).

“We’re teaching them how to march, customs and courtesies, military knowledge, acronyms, and getting them ready for Basic Training,” says SFC Danzy. “It’s to make sure they’re Army or Soldier ready. A lot of times the Soldiers from the Guard are better equipped for Basic Training than the Soldiers that come right off the couch.”

SFC Danzy was one of those “off-the-couch” Soldiers, having enlisted in the active duty Army in April of her senior year in high school, and shipping off to Basic in August without any kind of training beforehand.

SFC Danzy joined the Guard in 2002 after her contract with the Army ended, eager to start her college education.

“The decision to leave active duty was based upon the fact that I was given all this money for school, but I had no time for it.”

Because Guard service is part-time, she was able to get a degree in law enforcement and become a parole officer for the State of New Jersey while serving as a traditional Guard Soldier, drilling once a month and attending annual training in the summer.

After becoming a cadre member in Sea Girt, she was asked to become a drill sergeant.

When she realized there was not another female drill sergeant in the ranks, SFC Danzy decided, “Ok, absolutely I must go.”

As the first woman to become a drill sergeant in the New Jersey Army National Guard, “you’re representing women, one, and that’s a big deal, then I’m representing myself and my support team – everyone that was behind me. “

Plus, she was honored that she had been asked by her command.

“They could have chosen anybody, but they saw something in me.”

That something, she believes, is her “passion for soldiering. Grabbing Soldiers under your wing. Teaching them right from wrong, not only teaching them, but showing them what right looks like.”

So here are SFC Danzy’s tips for RSP or Basic.

 1. Have a positive mindset. 

“Positive thoughts yield positive results. Negative thoughts yield negative results, so if you already feel defeated on something then you’re probably not going to be able to do it.”

2. Pay attention to detail.

“When you’re not paying attention to detail, somebody can get hurt. That’s just the business that we’re in.”

3. Stay motivated.

“Your drill sergeants will motivate you. You just have to keep up the momentum.”

And another thing SFC Danzy wants you to know: even if it feels like it sometimes, drill sergeants are not the enemy.

“We’re supposed to train you, and we’re not trying to be likable. We give you the hard truth of what things are.”

 For an example of what that’s like, here’s a video of SFC Danzy in action:

At 37, as SFC Danzy closes in on retiring from the military when she reaches 20 years of service, and turns her focus more toward her civilian career, she plans to get a master’s degree in police graduate studies.

Likewise, she encourages her recruits to make the most of the Guard’s education benefits, which are “hands down our best selling point because education is expensive.”

“We don’t cap them on education, so if [Soldiers] want to get two bachelor’s degrees, two master’s degrees, as long as they’re actively drilling, and they’re in good standing, we’ll pay for it.” Benefits vary by State, but under the New Jersey ARNG Tuition Waiver Program, the New Jersey National Guard offers 100 percent free tuition for State schools.

So, if you’re interested in what the Guard has to offer, a great way to get started is to look into the Guard’s job board, which outlines all the careers you can train in, from armor and field artillery to aviation or logistics support, just to name a few. And for personalized advice, contact your local recruiter.

(Video by SFC Wayne Woolley)

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