When the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (the Old Guard) began to gear up for its role in the 58th Presidential Inauguration, all Soldiers knew the meticulous preparation necessary called for all hands on deck. So, the Soldiers of the Presidential Salute Battery and the Caisson Platoon trotted out their big guns and elegant horses and set about getting them ready to take their traditional spots in one of the nation’s most celebrated parades.
The PSB, which was founded in 1953 and is the only unit of its kind in the Army, fires cannon salutes in honor of the president, visiting foreign dignitaries and official guests of the United States.
Ceremonies require a five-man staff and a two-man team for each gun. The staff consists of the battery commander, who initiates fire commands and ensures the proper number of rounds is fired; the sergeant of the watch, who marches the battery into position, controls the firing of the backup gun, and monitors the watchman and his assistant; the watchman controls the timing between rounds and gives the command to fire; the assistant watchman ensures the watchman stays in time; and the counter counts the rounds and signals the last round to the battery.
The cannons have been fired at presidential inaugurations and state funerals since President Ronald Reagan’s administration, said Sgt. Cody L. Grunwald, an assistant watchman.
“Our number one task is to give the president his first 21-round gun salute,” said Sgt. Jordan Goodman, escort officer. “It is the highest honor that we can render to the president.”
The battery will use four vintage, 75mm, anti-tank cannons from World War II mounted on the M6 howitzer carriage.
“It’s an honor to lead the Soldiers onto the battery for the Inauguration,” said Staff Sgt. Eric Wintzell, the noncommissioned officer in charge. “This is one of the reasons I came to the Old Guard, so that I could render honors to our president.”
Caisson Soldiers also take great preparation for their moment in the inauguration spotlight. Preparing the horses for the festivities often begins in the early morning hours, when Soldiers shine brass and perform horse grooming duties.
“We want to show the public that units like ours are still in existence,” said Staff Sgt. Jonathan English, operations sergeant of the Caisson Platoon. “We are the last full-time equestrian unit. So, it’s important to represent not only ourselves, but the Army as a whole.”
Seeing the Soldiers on their elegant and disciplined horses take their place among the military pageantry often wins the Caisson Platoon many adoring parade fans.
“Proud to have the Caisson Platoon, home of the army’s oldest and most famous horse, Black Jack, take part in Inauguration Day 2017!” tweeted then President-Elect Donald J. Trump on Jan. 2.
Caisson Platoon Soldiers are thankful for the opportunity to render military honors to the new president in the national spotlight.
“All of our Soldiers are excited to be serving in the parade,” said Cpt. Austin Hatch, Caisson Platoon leader. “Whether we are on the side walker detail, helping prepare the horses and tack, or riding in the parade, we are all honored to serve.”
Established in 1893 as the Army Medical School, the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research has a long and respected history of serving America’s military. With more than 120 years of advances in military and public health, the goal at WRAIR remains to supply life-saving products to sustain the readiness of the warfighter.
Because infectious diseases threaten national and global security, WRAIR is able to shift focus quickly when illnesses, such as Ebola, emerge.
“Army medical research plays a foundational role in the success of our all-volunteer force,” said Gen. Daniel B. Allyn, vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, during a visit last year to WRAIR. “The success of our Army relies on trust – trust between Soldiers and the military institution, and trust between the military and the American public.”
The emergence and swift spread of Zika in the outbreak zones of North and South America and Southeast Asia, where service members are located, forced WRAIR’s scientists to channel their expertise toward developing a successful vaccine earlier this year. Human testing is underway at WRAIR in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Col. Nelson Michael, director of WRAIR’s Military HIV Research Program and Zika program co-lead, recently briefed Gen. Mark A. Milley, chief of staff of the U.S. Army, on WRAIR’s Zika vaccine progress.
“One of the things I am going to tell the general is of one [new concern] we have got to think about when we send our troops overseas and they come back home,” Michael said before his meeting with Milley. “We’re obviously very obligated toward military families, and there has been one case that is not as well documented where a woman transmitted it to a man sexually. The problem with Zika is that even though it’s been around a long time we didn’t know much about it until very recently.”
Soldiers help make successful medical technologies possible at WRAIR because they are accustomed to tackling problems quickly, Michael said. Sgt. Christopher A. Springer, a lab technician, is part of the team that developed the Zika vaccine at WRAIR.
“I am hoping someone like Sgt. Springer looks at this and at some point in his Army career says, ‘I want to be like those guys,’ and then continues to be involved at some level either as a noncommissioned officer or in some other capacity as a civilian scientist,” Michael said. “At either rate, he is exposed to something that he would never see anywhere else in the U.S. Army.”
Springer, as a young NCO, has found many opportunities to hone his leadership skills at WRAIR.
“I definitely like the new responsibilities as an NCO,” Springer said. “I feel like I am more involved with WRAIR. Recently I was afforded the opportunity to become the NCO in charge here for the German Armed Forces Proficiency Badge. We get them trained up.”
Named in 1953 after Maj. Walter Reed who was a military research physician best known for discovering yellow fever, WRAIR developed treatments for dysentery and malaria as well as vaccines for typhoid fever, dengue, Japanese encephalitis and meningitis. Among its many medical victories, WRAIR’s Military HIV Research Program spearheaded the first clinical trial in humans showing vaccine protection from the AIDS virus.
“We are the largest biomedical research laboratory in the DOD [Department of Defense] and the largest laboratory in the Army,” Michael said. “We work on diseases that are either infectious or that cause Soldiers to not be able to do their jobs.
“We have focused on things such as malaria and HIV infections since 1986,” Michael said. “We focus on the flaviviruses. Dengue has been the one that we have been banging away on for a very long time. We are very instrumental in the current leading candidates for vaccines for HIV, malaria and dengue, which is something we are very proud of. The institute also has a very strong program in bacterial infection diseases, especially with the growing problem of resistant bacteria.”
WRAIR is recognized as the oldest school of public health and preventive medicine in the United States. The institute has been home to Michael for much of his military career, and he is proud to be a part of it.
“[The challenges] make me want to continue to stay in the Army even though I am 59 [years old],” Michael said. “I could go anywhere I want. I trained at Stanford University and Harvard University. With my degrees I could be anywhere I wanted to, but I choose to remain in the Army because I adore what I do.”
When Sgt. Christopher A. Springer received orders to report to the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Maryland, all he knew of his impending assignment was that he would be working in a medical laboratory. Because of the rapid spread of Zika, Springer soon would be among the first military personnel in the country taking part in the U.S. Army’s efforts to control the mosquito-borne virus.
Recognizing the threat of Zika to its service members who are located in the outbreak zones of North and South America and Southeast Asia, the Army quickly moved to develop a vaccine at the U.S. Department of Defense’s largest biomedical research laboratory. Zika, which is primarily transmitted through mosquitoes, is a flavivirus similar to yellow fever, dengue and Japanese encephalitis.
The Zika Purified Inactivated Vaccine was successfully created within a few months at WRAIR. Flaviviruses are the field of expertise at the institute, which dates back to 1893. Springer, a lab technician, played a contributing role in the team that helped in the vaccine’s development.
“I had my suspicions when I got here and saw I would be working in vaccine development that there was a good chance I would get to work on something that comes out and ends up being used on a larger scale,” Springer said. “I definitely felt like there would be some good opportunities here, but I had no idea that something like this could ever happen.”
Springer soon was immersed in lab work with other colleagues at WRAIR. He and another colleague routinely handled the bulk majority of lab work on the Zika virus, running tests, producing paperwork and sharing the results, along with other essential lab duties. Springer has a bachelor of science in criminal justice from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, and an associate’s degree in health science laboratory technology from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
WRAIR leads the way
Earlier this fall, human trials began at WRAIR, where 75 healthy adults were vaccinated with the Zika Purified Inactivated Vaccine. The technology used to create the vaccine mirrors the process WRAIR undertook to produce its Japanese encephalitis vaccine, which was licensed in 2009.
“A lot of what we do here affects Soldier health every single day, so folks like Sgt. Springer are able to get an insight,” said Col. Nelson Michael, director of WRAIR’s Military HIV Research Program and Zika program co-lead. “Regardless of where they are put in this institute, they are going to be working on something that is not obscure.
“We have a lot of really young Soldiers here at WRAIR, and this will be the most unusual assignment they will ever have in the Army because we are not a troop unit,” Michael said. “We’re not a hospital unit, either. We’re something else, and we are not an administrative unit. They come here, and they are exposed to science.”
Both Michael’s and Springer’s laboratories are just a small sliver of an institute comprising 2,000 personnel who also work in far-flung locations in Africa and Asia, Michael said.
“[For the Soldiers,] WRAIR is basically a combination between being at the Army University and an Army company, which is making products,” Michael said. “We don’t do basic science for its own sake. We do a lot of very good basic science, but we do it always so we can eventually propel a scientific discovery into the field, something that protects Soldiers.”
WRAIR’s in-house capabilities are credited with enabling scientists to quickly develop a vaccine. The Pilot Bioproduction Facility, led by Dr. Kenneth Eckels, manufactures small doses of the vaccine to be used in clinical studies.
Zika was first identified in Uganda in 1947. Researchers, who in recent years tracked the Zika infection through WRAIR laboratories in Thailand, realized the infectious disease was beginning to emerge, Michael said.
“Much like Ebola was an epidemic of disease as well as an epidemic of fear, Zika is an epidemic of disease as well as an epidemic of fear,” Michael said. “Zika is new and frightening [to the public], especially if you are about to become pregnant or you are pregnant.”
As of Nov. 30, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 156 cases of Zika infection were confirmed in the military health system, including four pregnant service members and one pregnant family member. The CDC recommends that women and men who are returning from Zika-affected areas abstain or use condoms for six months, which is an increase from the previously recommended eight weeks.
“There has been at least one documented case of a Soldier who was infected with Zika overseas, came home, had sex with his wife and transmitted it,” Michael said. “Zika has some twists to it ─ [such as] the fact that it can be transmitted sexually, because usually when you think of a disease that was borne by mosquitoes you think, ‘Make sure you don’t get bitten by a mosquito.’ Now, you have got to be thinking about something else.”
Though the disease has been around a long time, scientists did not know much about it until very recently because no one studied it, Michael said. Infection during pregnancy was found to cause birth defects.
“Zika has hit the map big time because it causes neurological disease in developing fetuses,” Michael said. “One person in 4,000 actually develops a very serious complication called Transverse Myelitis or Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Basically what it means is your muscles stop working, your sensations stop working, and it comes up in your lower extremities. If it goes high enough, you stop breathing. For all these reasons ─ sexual transmission, the rare but finite chance of developing neurological disease if you are an adult, and the fact that we don’t have a vaccine for it ─ this is why we all jumped on it.”
Progress on a vaccine came quickly once Michael and his WRAIR colleagues ─ now-retired Col. Stephen Thomas, an infectious disease physician and a vaccinologist specializing in flaviviruses, and Dr. Kenneth Eckels, who runs the Pilot Bioproduction Facility ─ banded together. Thomas is the former deputy commander for operations at WRAIR and the former Zika program lead.
In March, Michael received a phone call from Dr. Dan Barouch, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Barouch, who is also director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts, was seeking to collaborate with Michael and his colleagues at WRAIR. Barouch’s center was developing mouse and monkey models to test the Zika vaccine, but did not have a vaccine. Michael’s team had made a vaccine, but did not have the mouse and monkey models to test it.
A deal was struck, and a couple of weeks later WRAIR shipped Barouch the vaccine. In quick succession, it was proved that the vaccine protected mice and monkeys when they were exposed, Michael said.
The usual timeframe from making a vaccine to human studies is about four years, Michael said. They did it all in 200 days.
“We all put it together, and everyone shared,” Michael said. “No one tried to compete with each other.”
WRAIR has deep and durable connections with the best and brightest in Health and Human Services, including the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, CDC, and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, Michael said. WRAIR is also working in collaboration with Sanofi Pasteur, one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world.
“We have weekly calls where everybody ─ academia, government ─ is on the same call, talking about their own data at the same time,” he said.
“The secret for why we work quickly is that people put their egos away, which wasn’t easy because we are all competitive,” he said. “We decided to work toward a common problem. The Army has an interest in this. It’s a readiness issue. It’s affecting Soldiers. It’s affecting their families. We know that the best chance of making a vaccine is the way the Army did it ─ by growing up the virus and killing it.”
Another candidate ─ a DNA vaccine ─ is undergoing separate testing by the NIH in clinical trials.
“The vaccine that the NIH is making is more of a riskier vaccine,” Michael said. “It’s based on a newer technology that has never been shown to work for humans.”
In the spotlight
With the advent of WRAIR’s vaccine came the national spotlight, which has highlighted the research institute and its scientists’ work on Zika. Two of their reports on the Zika Vaccine Program were published in Science and Nature journals. An article in New Yorker magazine followed, as well as many others.
“If you’re a young sergeant [such as Springer] and you’re watching this happen, this is pretty amazing,” Michael said. “Zika is probably the most topical infectious disease of 2016. People are talking about it all the time, and here he is: sitting in this environment, watching it happen. He is the tip of the spear. That’s what we do here.”
Because of his work in the lab, Springer has participated in media interviews that most young NCOs usually don’t handle. Though he has thrived on the intensity of working on a critical project such as Zika and has enjoyed seeing his name in print, Springer is ready to move on to other projects at the institute.
“I hope everything goes well in human trials and the vaccine successfully gets distributed,” Springer said. “I hope I don’t have to do anymore work on Zika ─ that’s what I hope more than anything. I’m overworked from Zika. I am ready to be done with it. I want that virus to be extinct.”
Though the World Health Organization announced recently that Zika is no longer a world health emergency, WRAIR officials say the fight will continue to limit its spread and prevent a future outbreak.
“The military has lots of reasons why people may not want to join us [the Army],” Michael said. “Part of what we need to be able to do is make a pact with a Soldier and his family. If we are going to send him in harm’s way ─ damage doesn’t just come from bullets and bombs, it comes from other sources ─ we want to keep him healthy. We protect them from frostbite, we protect them from heatstroke, and we protect them from diseases such as malaria, HIV, Zika and everything else. This is part of what we do.”
It’s all about readiness, and WRAIR is focused on supporting the readiness of the force whose service members are deployed around the world, Michael said. Licensing the Army’s vaccine for commercial use would probably take about two years if human testing proves to be successful, he said.
“If the DNA vaccine were to work and it were licensed, then that would be the one the Army would buy and use,” Michael said. “If our vaccine works, it’s the one the Army would buy and use. Even though I have a dog in the fight, I really don’t care which dog wins. I just want to have a tool that protects Soldiers.”
Is it true that assignment officers at U.S. Army Human Resources Command save the great jobs for their friends? Or, that assignment officers sit on the promotion boards?
HRC’s Command Sgt. Maj. Wardell Jefferson has heard many of the fallacies about HRC and urges Soldiers to reject the myths.
“A lot of [the negativity] is [because of a] lack of education,” Jefferson said before a town hall for senior noncommissioned officers in December at Fort Bliss, Texas. “What we try to do is inform the field of what we are doing and why we do it …
If a Soldier doesn’t get a promotion or assignment he or she wants, “it’s not because the assignment manager doesn’t like you or doesn’t want to send you to those locations,” he said. “It’s because you have to meet certain criteria. The way we dispel those myths is to talk Soldiers through it and educate the leaders. The leaders can help us to educate the Soldier on how the assignment process works.”
Jefferson and Maj. Gen. Thomas Seamands, HRC commander, visited Fort Bliss on Dec. 14 to reach out to both noncommissioned and commissioned service members. For Jefferson and Seamands, the advantages of doing these HRC road shows are twofold.
“There’s a benefit for us at HRC because we get to come out here and listen to the Soldiers in the field, to find out what’s on their minds and how we can make things better for them and their organizations,” Jefferson said. “The other part is for us to show transparency. We inform the Soldiers of what’s going on and what kinds of changes are taking place within their career management fields. That way, they are aware of what’s taking place and how it affects them and their families.”
As the Army downsizes, Jefferson said talent management is not just HRC’s responsibility.
“We [at HRC] identify the Soldiers that need to move to these different positions in our Army, but once we place Soldiers on assignment, then the unit has the responsibility in managing that talent,” Jefferson said. “The leaders on the ground ensure that Soldiers get to the right schools they need in order to develop the talent and go forward.”
He also recently spoke about the issue during Army Training and Doctrine Command’s third town hall in November at Fort Eustis, Virginia.
Many questions and complaints heard during HRC’s road shows are linked to recent revisions in Army policy.
“It’s just the fear of change,” Jefferson said. “When we decided to make the change to a new noncommissioned officer evaluation report, a lot of people were in an uproar about it. But now that we have been doing this NCOER for almost 12 months, not a lot of people are arguing about it. Now, it’s just learning how to write those evaluations. Same thing with STEP,” the Select, Train, Educate, Promote policy for promotion.
Jefferson often offers his assistance to Soldiers at the road shows. If, for example, a Soldier has an issue with his or her assignment and is not connecting with the assignment officer to discuss it, Jefferson will take the Soldier’s information and meet with the assignment officer in an effort to get both parties in touch. Also, if Soldiers continue to take issue with a certain policy or question its relevance, they may count on Jefferson to take up the debate with the deputy chief of staff, G-1.
“If it’s something we think we should look at, we’ll take that back to the Army G-1 and say, ‘We have got this feedback from the Soldiers out in the field. Maybe we could look at this policy, and see if it’s still relevant or if we need to adjust it,’” Jefferson said.
As for those NCOs looking for advice on how to get ahead in the Army, Jefferson said it’s all about self-improvement.
“The way you do that is by going to military schools, by taking the hard jobs and developing yourself and making sure that you are technically and tactically proficient in your career management field,” he said. “Also, reach out to your mentors and find out what else you need to be doing. But the most important thing to prepare yourself for promotion, regardless of what job you are in, is do the best you can and ensure that your evaluation says exactly how you did in that position. Along with going to the schools, that’s the major way to develop ourselves.”
The command sergeant major said he has grown a lot in his 18 months on the job and learns something new every day, especially in his interactions with Soldiers.
“I want to make an impact on the Soldiers and families because that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “Our job is to ensure that Soldiers and our families are taken care of, and I am very passionate about that. There are going to be some Soldiers saying, ‘It’s just HRC again,’ but there is another Soldier out here who I am going to have an impact on ─ something that I am going to say today is going to impact him and his family, or I am going to be able to assist them with something and they are going to put that trust back in HRC and think, ‘Well, maybe they are not the bad guys.’”
Jefferson often leaves NCOs with the same bit of advice ─ develop a passion for what they do, and success will come.
“If you are passionate about something, you are going to be successful in doing that,” he said. “Remain competent and relevant. If you are a leader, all these changes affect all of our Soldiers and their families. You have to know what’s going on in our Army today in order for you to be an effective leader.”
The beautiful sights of Oregon’s mountains and waterfalls can end up being dangerous to those unprepared. That danger is what keeps Soldiers from the Oregon Army National Guard busy.
Staff Sgt. Benjamin Sjullie is a platoon sergeant and flight medic with the Oregon Army National Guard. He said the Pacific Northwest state’s terrain, along with the cooperation of other state and local agencies, means National Guard flight crews in Oregon get more training and missions than they might in other states.
“In Oregon, we’re blessed with these mountains and we’re blessed with very active people who love to hike, love to ski, love to push the limits,” Sjullie said. “Mount Hood is probably our bread and butter when it comes to our missions. The thing about Hood is it’s just tall enough to make it exciting, but it’s also tall enough to get yourself into danger if you don’t know what you are doing. … It’s really forced us to stay on top of our game in hoisting and search and rescue. A lot of other states’ National Guard units don’t have that.”
Sjullie said Oregon Army National Guard leaders reached out to state agencies to let them know what the National Guard could do, and now Soldiers are called on quite often.
“We get a lot of support from the state,” he said. “They really have our backs. The sheriffs and the search and rescue companies around the state, they know the procedure on getting a Black Hawk in the air. They know what type of missions we do. So, they’re really proactive on getting a Black Hawk in the air when they need it.”
Getting a Black Hawk flight crew ready for missions can be difficult, Sjullie said. All National Guard Soldiers have civilian jobs they have to keep up with, but being part of a flight crew requires many extra hours.
“That’s the thing about our unit,” Sjullie said. “When we go through the interview process for new crew members and new flight medics or crew chiefs, one of the things we really voice to them is that this is not a typical M-day (man-day) job because we have flight requirements we have to keep up with. We have hours we have to keep up with, daytime and nighttime training. We have our hoist training, which is very extensive.”
Oregon’s missions require skills and training that many active-duty units never receive, said Maj. Nathan Edgecomb, operations officer of the Army Aviation Support Facility in Salem, Oregon.
“A lot of active, they are very restrictive on what they can do, so they might only do a 50-foot hoist,” Edgecomb said. “We won’t even sign off our crew chiefs and medics until they’ve done a 250-foot hoist under night-vision goggles and in the daytime. We do a lot more of that kind of training.”
Sjullie said the main lessons new crew members learn involve working with a crew while traveling by helicopter.
“Attention to detail is the big thing,” Sjullie said. “They go through a lot of academic training before they really start flying. Once you get the academic training, you start thinking — and I still remember going through my progression back in 2003 — ‘Oh, yeah. This is simple. I got this.’ Then you get out there, and the helicopter turns on, the rotor starts turning and all communication is hand and arm signals and over our inner communication system, and so just learning how to operate around the aircraft with all the noise and all the moving parts, remembering where to walk and when not to walk, when to talk, when not to talk — just starting off, it’s difficult. Once you progress so far, then you throw in the hoist training and the mission training, and you can get overwhelmed pretty quickly. But we stay on top of it, and more than 90 percent of the people who we bring in do a really good job.
“That’s because of our interview process,” Sjullie said. “On the paramedic side, we run the medics through medical scenarios prior to getting them into the unit, just to make sure. You really don’t want to be a mediocre medic coming into the unit because we’re not here to teach medicine. We’re here to teach paramedics how to be good flight medics. Because you’re not just a medic, you’re a crew member. The Army motto as a medic is you fight first, then you tend to your medicine.”
In his civilian career, Sjullie is a paramedic, and the mindset of fighting first as a National Guard flight medic is just one of the differences Sjullie has to adjust to when he gets on a Black Hawk.
“Being a medic on the civilian side I realize that when I’m working on patients I’m in a pretty safe environment, and I have got five or six other paramedics around me,” Sjullie said “But on a typical mission, either downrange or stateside, most likely it’s just you. And you have three extra crew members who don’t know paramedicine, so you’re not only trying to take care of yourself, keep yourself safe, you’re also trying to do your paramedic job.
“For an example, when we do high-altitude missions here — like on Mount Hood or Mount Jefferson or the Three Sisters mountains — I’ve been on missions where I have to anchor into the side of the mountain before I get off the hoist because it’s so steep,” he said. “So I have to take care of myself before I can take care of somebody else. You’re constantly trying to take care of two people at one time, whereas, on the civilian side you have that safety net where you’re not going to fall of the side of a mountain. You’re on a street or in somebody’s house. So it doesn’t just take being a good medic here. It takes having a good head on your shoulders, being smart, being able to break up a mission so you don’t get tunnel vision on just one thing. We have some pretty dangerous missions here where if you’re not paying attention, one wrong move and it could be you who is needing to be rescued.”
In addition to hoisting injured people off mountains and getting them medical care, the National Guard Black Hawk crews in Oregon also help the state’s firefighting efforts.
Sgt. Steven Armstrong, Black Hawk crew chief and mechanic for the Oregon National Guard, said his job as crew chief involves daily inspections to make sure the helicopter is ready to fly, replacing components as needed, then controlling the hoist on missions.
“Our biggest flight duty is we’re the hoist operators,” Armstrong said. “We’re the ones controlling the hoist, dropping the medic down. We help with other tasks in the aircraft, like fuel management and air space surveillance.
“But then we also do water bucket stuff for wildfires here stateside, which is a really fun mission for us,” Armstrong said. “They train all the crew chiefs to press the button to open the bucket. That’s basically what we do. But we also talk the pilots in to where they need to drop the water. So, we have guys on the ground who are doing the real work on the wildfire, digging lines to contain the fire, and then they’re telling us where they want us to drop the water. Because the pilots in these aircraft —it’s not our full-time job to work fires — they don’t have bubble windows so they can see. So we have to be their eyes, basically, and try to talk them in to where they need to drop the water.”
Armstrong has been so inspired by what he has seen while being part of a Black Hawk crew that he just finished getting a paramedic degree so that he can be more involved in the life-saving portion of the mission.
“I went on a mission a couple of years ago with Staff Sgt. Sjullie, and it made me want to go the paramedic route, so I’ve been going to school for two years,” Armstrong said. “I just got my degree as a paramedic. So, I’ll be switching from the crew chief to the flight medic side.”
Life in the National Guard is full of transitions. Before you can get too settled in your civilian life, you get sent on a long deployment. Upon your return, you try to settle back into the civilian routine. But most employers do their best to ease the transition, Sjullie said. He works as a firefighter/paramedic for the city of Eugene, Oregon.
“Luckily, most employers are really good about it,” Sjullie said. “There are not a lot that I’ve heard of that give the Soldier a hard time. Once we get word that we’ll be deploying, I try to let my employer know as soon as possible. On my last deployment, I was able to let them know about a year out. They prepare for it.
“It’s a tough transition,” he said. “After my last deployment, it took me a few months to get back into the groove because you go from a combat environment to a civilian environment. It can be tough. But if you have a good employer, they really make it easy for you.”
In addition to having developed a good working relationship with state and local agencies, the Oregon National Guard offers opportunities for joint training and missions, as well, Sjullie said.
“We have a really good working relationship with the Navy and Marines,” he said. “I got to fly with the Coast Guard a few years ago and train with them. That was a really good experience because they do a lot of water rescues, obviously. They like to do hoist missions 50 feet or lower. They hate the heights. I hate the water, so it works out. Their eyes got really big when I told them we do 300-foot hoists. We bumped a lot of our training off each other, and we learned a lot from it. I learned a lot from them on some hoist-training techniques, and they learned a lot about doing higher-altitude training.”
What NCOs bring
When it comes to Black Hawk medic missions, NCOs are really what the mission is all about, Edgecomb said.
“On a Medevac, I’m an officer and a pilot, but I’m a really just a chauffeur,” Edgecomb said. “My job is to get the medic and the crew chief wherever they need to go, so they can hoist somebody down, pick up the wounded and start working on them. Without them, I wouldn’t have a job. They are the ones who save the lives. We’re just taxi drivers.”
Sjullie takes his job as an NCO seriously and is as professional as they come, Edgecomb said.
“He is a great NCO because he is a true leader,” Edgecomb said. “The guy, you give him a task and he will find the necessary resources and he’ll get it done. He doesn’t give you a bunch of lip, and you don’t have to go through a bunch of ‘This is why we need to do it.’ He just says, ‘Yes, sir,’ and goes and does it. You don’t have to hold his hand or give him a bunch of guidance. He just gets it done.”
Both Sjullie and Armstrong are the type of NCOs who make sure the Oregon National Guard Black Hawk mission stays successful, no matter the hours they have to put in, Edgecomb said.
“Part of our mission set here is the search and rescue, and 85 percent of those seem to happen on a Sunday at 3 p.m. when no one is working,” Edgecomb said. “Those are two guys who I can always call, and if they are not working (at their civilian job) they will always volunteer to come in and do a search and rescue. They are so important to our program. Without the M-Day guys who volunteer, we wouldn’t be able to do any of this stuff.”
The NCOs in the Oregon National Guard are a special group of men and women, Edgecomb said.
“We have a variety of skill sets and civilian jobs,” he said. “We’ve got nurses, Sjullie is a paramedic in real life. We have engineers, a broad spectrum. What I’m trying to say is we have a bunch of smart NCOs in our organization who have these high-profile civilian jobs, but they still choose to come in and be an E5 or E6 because of what they get to do: save lives and fly around in helicopters.”
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