By Bruce J. Siwy Daily American
ANNVILLE — American involvement in the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts could be drawing to a close, but the National Guard may never be the same.
In the 10 years since the initial siege of Baghdad, the role of guardsmen and women has shifted dramatically from a stopgap emergency force to a fully integrated segment of the active military.
The change is just one tangible result of a war on terror that can seemingly spread to any nation at any given time. And it means that the guard members are beginning to look more like their full-time counterparts.
One Air Force National Guardsman put it this way: “The difference (between us) is absolutely zero.”
The shift also means that, with proposed overseas troop reductions, the guard’s youngest members will be leaving active duty — in essence, the only way of life they’ve known since becoming adults.
‘They bring a lot of skills’
Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Harry Zeznanski will proudly tell you he spent his 18th birthday in Vietnam and his 51st in Iraq.
“And (I’ve been) all points in between,” he said, noting that his final deployment occurred in 2007.
Zeznanski serves as lead military coach for Vet Advisor in Ebensburg, which provides coaching in behavioral health, wellness, finances and other aspects of transition and career development. These services, he said, have become more vital ever since the war on terror began in 2001.
“Before Desert Storm our National Guard wasn’t used that much. Now they’re used — a lot. “After Desert Storm we found out they got to be real parts of the army,” he added. “Otherwise, they die.”
Army Force Generation, also known as ARFORGEN, made this shift official. Developed in 2004 and implemented in 2006, this policy change meant that the National Guard would be cemented into the overseas deployment cycle.
According to Zeznanski, guardsmen and women have been critical components because many of them already bring useful talents from their civilian workplace.
“They bring a lot of skills to the table,” he said.
Army Maj. Edward Shank, director of public affairs for the Pennsylvania National Guard, agreed that a lot is different since he began his military career 27 years ago during the Reagan presidency.
One event that “changed things a lot,” he said, was the fall of the Berlin Wall. This meant that the enemy was no longer a “vague, nebulous entity” in the nuclear-capable Soviet Union.
According to Shank, learning to win the “hearts and minds” of these civilian populations was just as important as learning to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
“The enemy is not wearing a uniform,” said Shank, who has served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. “It was much like Vietnam where you don’t know who the enemy is because they look like everyone else.”
Shank is part of a Stryker brigade that is scheduled for deployment next year. In spite of the dangers, he said, the National Guard has had no trouble filling the ranks.
“We’ve never been below 100 percent since 9/11,” he said.
Zeznanski added: “If I had my way I’d still be (enlisted). It’s in my blood — all my adult life.”
‘Not without its price’
A decade-long war in the Middle East has often meant more than one tour of duty for members of the military.
Pennsylvania National Guard Adjutant Gen. Wesley Craig noted there have been 34,000 deployments since 9/11 — out of only 19,000 total guardsmen and women.
“Most have gone twice somewhere in the world,” he said. “We deployed the entire (Pennsylvania) National Guard about a time and a half.”
According to Craig, the commonwealth hosts the third-largest National Guard in America. The federal government finances the majority of these units, with a small percentage provided by the states.
Approximately 1,500 are actively deployed this year, most in Afghanistan. Craig said this number is expected to drop to just a few hundred by next year.
At least 53 members of the Pennsylvania National Guard have been killed in battle since 9/11.
“That’s something that weighs on me personally,” said Craig, the second-highest ranking member of the Pennsylvania guard’s joint staff. “That is not without its price.”
Combat isn’t the only danger for men and women of the guard. Another risk is that guard duty and deployment will jeopardize a person’s job or potential for career advancement in the private sector, even though laws like the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, also known as USERRA, have been drafted to prevent this.
“Usually I never get called out on (leaving work for duty),” said Sgt. Roberto Morales, a young guardsman who works in retail. “We have (laws) in place to protect us.”
“It’s always in the back of your head though.”
In spite of the possible drawbacks, Morales said he’s confident his experience in the National Guard will pay off in the long run.
“I’ve got to say that the biggest (advantage) is our values,” he said, listing integrity, leadership and dedication to service. “That’s something that’s not going to go away.”
Sgt. Kayla Kreeger agreed that their values and work ethic carry over into their civilian work.
She said that though they only wear a uniform on weekends, they are “a soldier always.”
‘A lot more support’
David P. Tebo is concerned about the men and women of the National Guard.
As a representative of Hero 2 Hired — a program designed to help guardsmen and women find post-deployment careers — he knows there are hurdles to overcome.
A big challenge is related to language: Tebo said many National Guard members do not know how to write a resume without using military lingo.
An 88M, for example, is basically the military equivalent to a commercial driver’s license, or CDL. But he said a lot of guardsmen and women wouldn’t think to put that translation onto a resume — thus damaging their chances to find work.
He added that members of the National Guard should emphasize their responsibilities, noting that a staff sergeant is typically a “manager” to at least eight other members of the guard.
According to Tebo, helping these individuals is especially important because many may be returning from deployment for the first extended period of time since they became adults.
He estimated that more than half of all active duty members of the guard — who made up a majority of all U.S. military in Iraq at one point — are younger than 30 and without employment records in their career fields despite having more leadership experience than their private sector counterparts of the same age.
Zeznanski, for one, is optimistic because he believes the American public’s attitude is much different than when he first joined the military during Vietnam.
“I think there’s a lot more support now for the military from civilians.”
(Editor’s note: Access and interviews with the Pennsylvania National Guard were made possible by the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR), which hosted its annual Bosslift program May 8-9 this year. ESGR is a Department of Defense agency that seeks to develop and promote a culture where American employers support and value the military service of their employees by advocating relevant initiatives, recognizing supporters, increasing awareness of applicable laws and resolving work-related conflicts. Bosslift is an invitation-only program that gives civilian employers educational programs and an inside look at the training exercises of the National Guard. To learn more about the local ESGR, call 814-421-2856