Posts in Category: Texas State Guard

NGB leadership visits Texas National Guard troops on the border

Story by Sgt. 1st Class Elizabeth Pena 
Texas Military Department

Story by Sgt. 1st Class Elizabeth Pena
Photo By Sgt. 1st Class Elizabeth Pena

HARLINGEN, Texas -- Senior Enlisted Advisor Tony L. Whitehead, the senior enlisted advisor for the Chief, National Guard Bureau, visits Texas Guardsmen, November 22-24, 2022, in Harlingen, Texas, to check the pulse of the soldiers and airmen during the Thanksgiving holiday.

SEA Whitehead serves as the Chief's principal military advisor on all enlisted matters affecting training, utilization, the health of the force, and enlisted professional development. As the highest enlisted level of National Guard leadership, he provides direction for the enlisted force and represents their interests.

"The purpose of the visit was to check on our soldiers and airmen working on Operation Lone Star," said SEA Whitehead. "They're Guardsmen, and I wanted to make sure that we had an opportunity to speak to them about their thoughts and ideas about the mission, how they were doing, how they felt about how the mission was going and any ideas that I needed to take back to the Chief of the National Guard Bureau."

Operation Lone Star is a state-led mission to respond to increased illegal immigration on the Texas-Mexico border. In May of 2021, Texas issued a disaster declaration covering 48 counties, primarily counties along or near the Texas – Mexico border. Currently, approximately 6,000 service members are deployed in support of Operation Lone Star.

During the visit, SEA Whitehead met with different units and components to get a full picture of the various mission sets of the state active-duty members, which included getting to ride on a Texas State Guard Center Console boat, used by Task Force East, known as the 'river unit' for the border mission. This unit uses TXSG flat-bottomed and center console boats in support of the border mission.

"Task Force East is responsible for four zones in the McAllen sector of the border. Our unit is specifically responsible for the river," said Texas Army National Guard Capt. Mike Jones, commander of the TF East team. "Today, we were showcasing some of the highlights of both the Mexico and U.S. side such as landmarks, key areas the Cartel uses and Border Patrol use, you know, in the whole cat and mouse game of border security."

Soldiers assigned to the river unit received recognition coins from SEA Whitehead for their outstanding work on the border. They had the opportunity to talk about their experiences on the mission with the highest enlisted leader in the National Guard.

"The Southwest Border Mission is a unique mission to the United States," said SEA Whitehead. "For our soldiers and airmen doing the mission, this has been talked about a lot, and I think sometimes we forget that we've got people down there 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

As part of SEA Whitehead's priority to seek opportunities for innovation and advancement within the ranks, SEA Whitehead asked service members to provide feedback to take back to the top [Pentagon].

"The visit was so great for my soldiers," said Capt. Jones. "These guys [and gals] are all highly motivated, to begin with, but having leadership from NGB come down and see what they do on a day-to-day basis is a big deal."

Some of the unit-level leadership also briefed SEA Whitehead on the morale of the Texas Guardsmen, stating there was an 86 percent volunteer rate for troops wishing to stay on the mission. These extension requests, leaders said, can be attributed to the pay incentives, time off to spend with family and the unique mission set the border mission provides. Through OLS, Texas Guardsmen can work in different units and alongside state partners like the Border Patrol Department of Public Safety, as well as the impact the mission has on the communities.

Reflecting on his visit, SEA Whitehead was incredibly impressed with the service members' work and their commitment to serving the greater good.

"One of the best things I liked about what I heard was that they have been here long enough to see the difference they have made in what they've been doing. So, despite some of the things they've heard regarding the negative social media or negative press, they know that there's been a positive difference in what they have been doing since they've been here."

When asked why he chose to come during a Thanksgiving holiday, SEA Whitehead said he wanted to ensure our soldiers and airmen know military leaders in Washington, D.C., are mindful of their 24/7 commitment.

"When the holidays come around, I don't know if people have the impression that things are halted because of it or that they are just comforted that we have military members down there on the Texas-Mexico border. Some of our Guardsmen have families that they're separated from, that's not just those deployed overseas but those deployed right here in the U.S.," said SEA Whitehead. "So, it's important for the Chief of the National Guard Bureau, myself, and the rest of the leadership team to go down and tell them ‘Thank you’ for what they're doing. We appreciate what they're doing, and we must let them know they're standing in a gap that's extremely important to our nation's security."

Six Sigma Training and More: a Valuable New Benefit for Texas State Guard Soldiers

By David Brown, 1LT, Texas State Guard 

AUSTIN (Camp Mabry), Texas – Although many soldiers in the Texas State Guard will tell you that serving their fellow Texans is a reward unto itself, a new program offered to all service members underscores the range of benefits available to those who wear the uniform.  Starting this year, members of the Texas State Guard are eligible for free professional development and training from one of the top companies in online education.  

This summer, every member of the Texas State Guard received (via email) a log-in and password to take advantage of the SkillSets Online Training Center, which allows participants to earn a certification in new skills (or a refresher on existing skills).  Some 7,000 courses and real-world simulations are now available to service members without charge, including Six Sigma Yellow, Green, and Black Belt certification, lessons in project development and organization, team leadership, managing budgets, predictive modeling, communicating with stakeholders, and much more. Many of the offerings are centered on computer technology, ranging from user-focused training all the way up to advanced programming, network security, and the management of highly specialized systems. 

"The certification and training opportunities available to members of the State Guard through SkillSets Online are a significant benefit,” says Col. Darren Fitz Gerald, Chief of Staff for the Texas State Guard.  “At no cost to the individual servicemember, they can pursue self-paced professional development and, in some cases, training and coursework for nationally recognized certifications.  Regardless of whether their time spent with SkillSets Online is aimed toward advancement in their civilian career or strengthening specific skills and abilities needed in the Guard, the end result is a capable and confident servicemember ready and able to serve their fellow Texan." 

Pvt. Luke Turner of Flower Mound, a recent recruit, wasted no time taking advantage of the new benefit.  

“I saw that my Master Sgt. had 18 classes, so I just wanted to one-up him,” Turner says.  

Turner’s ambition was inspiring. In his T6 (signals) section at Texas State Guard Headquarters, a “challenge” issued by the Officer-in-Charge resulted in Turner chalking up some 96 certifications by the October drill.  

You can guess who won the challenge. 

“At first I started working on classes involving employee-employer relations, how to manage large groups, how to manage a conference, that sort of thing,” Turner says. “I focused on those classes because when I was younger, I volunteered at a church camp, and I’d be responsible for 12 kids–and had to learn how to handle disputes between the campers.”  As Turner’s course completions mounted, he shifted his educational focus to IT (Information Technology) studies, helping him get more acquainted with some of the high-tech systems used in the T6.   

Experts say online development courses provide a more flexible, convenient, and efficient way to grow and strengthen professional skills compared to in-person and other more traditional coursework options.  That is an important advantage for Texas State Guard members, many of whom have busy jobs in the civilian world, to say nothing of family and community commitments. One key advantage to the SkillSets approach is that most subjects include a ‘pre-test’ option, enabling students who pass to receive credit and certification without having to sit through an entire course session (most of which are 1-2 hours long).  

“I reviewed the SkillSets certifications available and did an analysis of what this would cost service members if they were to try to obtain this training in the private sector, and found we were saving soldiers tens of thousands of dollars,” says Master Sgt. James “Damon” Williams, who serves in the T6 section of Headquarters Company. “We thought not only would SkillSets be a major bonus for those already serving, but it’s also a great tool for recruitment as an extremely valuable new benefit of membership in the Texas State Guard.” 

“The training is great for anyone with a job in the civilian world, someone possibly looking for a new job, or boosting your resume with credentials,” Turner says, adding, “I think you’d really be missing out if you didn’t take the opportunity to get those certifications–it’s truly a wonderful thing.” 

But the Texas State Guard – and the people it serves – gain from this new benefit as well. 

To be “Equal to the Task” (per the motto of the Texas State Guard) and mission-ready when asked to assist during emergencies statewide, continual training and learning are a must.  On top of professional and personal development, Texas State Guard service members are constantly engaged in military training and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) studies.   

The Texas State Guard is one of three branches of the Texas Military Department, along with the Texas Army National Guard and the Texas Air National Guard. Other benefits of service in the Texas State Guard include state tuition assistance, a daily stipend for state active duty, and much more.  A full list of benefits can be found online at tmd.texas.gov under the State Guard tab.   

Making History: Lubbock-based Texas State Guard Soldier Awarded Texas Purple Heart

By David Brown, 1LT, Texas State Guard 

LUBBOCK, Texas -  On August 20th, a Lubbock-based officer in the Texas State Guard, 1st Lt. Christopher Beck, made history as the first State Guard service member to be awarded the Texas Purple Heart: an honor given for injuries sustained by enemy action while on military duty. Though Texas State Guard soldiers typically don’t encounter ‘enemy action’ as one would find on a battlefield, the award given this day would help ‘make right’ the lack of acknowledgment for an act of military heroism years ago. 

It was August 27th, 2005, 5:15 in the morning, Iraq time.  It was a moment Beck will remember for the rest of his life. 

The floodlights at the U.S. Convoy Support Center (CSC) Scania, some 90 miles south of Baghdad, Iraq had been on for about 15 minutes when the sound of incoming mortar fire broke the early morning quiet.    

Beck (then a member of the Texas Army National Guard on a tour of duty in Iraq) and his crew had been on patrol most of that morning.  “We left at 2100 the night before. There were a few pop shots, but the mission had been pretty uneventful. We’d sent the drivers and the gunners to early chow,” Beck recalls.   

The only warning was an instantly recognizable sound, so close you could hear the dreaded thump of the shell exiting the tube. The first of 11 mortars targeting the CSC was aimed directly at the convoy.  There was hardly enough time to react before “the first one exploded– it hit about 10 feet from us,” Beck says. 

Of the six soldiers nearby, five took shrapnel.  The only soldier uninjured lay beneath Beck, who had thrown himself on top of a gunner to protect him.   

“After we got hit, I helped other wounded soldiers get to the aid station and get treatment.  I grabbed our medic and we went back out with a stretcher…” 

“It was like something out of a movie,” Beck adds. “I took some shrapnel - split my head open, they called it a contusion. My right shoulder was swollen and purple.  Being a grunt they tell us pain is only weakness leaving the body…” but that hardly lessened the pain’s intensity. 

That was 17 years ago.   

“It’s important for us to acknowledge what these soldiers give up, their sacrifices for others,” said Maj. General Anthony Woods, Commanding General of the Texas State Guard.  Woods made his comments at the awards ceremony in Lubbock on August 20th, 2022. While there, Woods also acknowledged the sacrifices made by the families of service members who support the soldiers. Beck and his wife, Kerry, live in Lubbock where Beck works as an architect at WCA Design Studio, LLC.  

Since the creation of the Texas Purple Heart by the State Legislature in 2005, only 20 people had been awarded the Texas Purple Heart before this year, most for their service in the Army or the Texas Army National Guard.  Beck, the 21st recipient, is the first Texas State Guard member to receive the heart-shaped medal with that Lone Star at the center.  

“History was made today,” Woods said. The Texas Purple Heart is the third highest military decoration that can be awarded by the Texas Military Department.   

“It really is an honor to be one of a select few, and as the first State Guard member to receive the Texas Purple Heart…well, it kinda leaves me speechless,” Beck says.  

The Midland native served on ‘both sides’ of 9/11: after 4 years of active duty in the U.S. Army assigned to the 4th Infantry Division based at Fort Hood, Beck joined the Texas Army National Guard in 2003, serving 6 years.  It was during this time that Beck was deployed to Iraq, and was injured by enemy action.  But at that time, there was an issue of eligibility for Purple Heart recognition, due to Beck’s status as a reservist.  

The awarding of the Texas Purple Heart is an overdue acknowledgment of Beck’s sacrifice, and an honor he hopes will be extended to other Texas soldiers injured by enemy action who may not have received full recognition. 

“I’ve been doing some research, trying to pull numbers, get names of (injured) soldiers,” Beck says, adding “I’m going to try to work with state representatives to see if we can’t get others recognized for the sacrifices they made, too.” 

After Beck left the National Guard in order to finish his Bachelor's and Master's degree in Architecture at Texas Tech, he wasn’t fully done with military service.  In 2017, he joined the ranks of the Texas State Guard, one of the three branches of the Texas Military Department, responding to emergencies within the state. He is a 1st Lt. in the 2nd Battalion, 1st Brigade. His twin brother, Cpl. Robert Beck also serves in the Texas State Guard.  

Although many in the Texas State Guard are veterans, prior federal military experience is not a requirement.  State Guard members must meet military physical and health standards, undertake ongoing emergency response and leadership training, and demonstrate a commitment to serving their fellow Texans during emergencies or other times of need as requested by state and local officials, often on short notice.  

“I’m not a hero - I know that General Woods called me that - but I was just doing my job,” Beck says. “We’re all soldiers, we train and we do our mission.” 

More information about the Texas State Guard, including contacts for recruitment, can be found at the Texas Military Department website (tmd.texas.gov) under the State Guard tab.

On the Front Lines of the Cyberwars: Texas State Guard Stages Virtual War Games

By David Brown, 1LT, Texas State Guard 

CAMP MABRY (Austin), Texas - In early October 2022, amid saber-rattling from Russian officials in its war against Ukraine, government websites in Colorado, Kentucky, Mississippi, and other states were knocked offline.  Reports say Russian-speaking hackers claimed responsibility for what many suspected to be politically motivated attacks related to U.S. support for Ukrainian forces.  Through it all, Texas’ online sites remained secure, thanks in large part to the constant work of the Texas State Guard’s Cyber Security Team.  

They’ve trained for this.   

When it comes to Cyber Security, the Texas State Guard is on the front lines of Texas’ defense, and exercises like January’s CyberSword 2022 were a test of the Guard’s cyber expertise and an opportunity to develop new strategies for defending Texas’ largest frontier.  Although CyberSword 2022 was technically a multilayered virtual “war game”, the Guard’s participation was anything but light-hearted ‘fun and games’ online.   

“The 86th Texas Legislature codified the Texas State Guard’s role in serving the state in a Cyber Security capacity,” said Captain Mark Bell of the Texas State Guard Cyber Security Unit.  Since the only way to make a computer safe from hackers, Bell said, is to “turn it off” - and taking Texas ‘offline’ is not a viable option - the Texas State Guard Cyber Security Unit maintains constant vigilance.   

The timing of the exercise could not have been more propitious: Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine raised concerns around the world about the threat of state-sponsored cyber-attacks. 

“The thing about the Texas State Guard Cyber Security Unit is we are the only part of the Guard that continuously fights active nation-state threats, 24/7,” said Warrant Officer Christopher Caruso of the Cyber Security Team.  “We are always faced with the fact that Russia, China, Iran, and hackers-for-profit are always trying to attack our systems.  We’ve actually gone out on missions after ransomware attacks” pursuant to the Texas State Guard’s duty to provide mission-ready forces to assist state and local authorities in times of state emergencies. 

“A couple of years ago, I was deployed to Texarkana for a Cyber Security incident there,” said Staff Sgt. Andrew Williams of the Cyber Security Unit. “The threat actors took the entire city offline.  City operations were completely shut down. People couldn’t even pay their water bills, that sort of thing.”  Similar attacks statewide have included the defacing of local government websites, acquiring sensitive data and vandalizing systems for profit. With so many smaller cities with limited resources across a state larger than many countries, Williams says, “it’s a wonder Texas hasn’t been the target of even more cyberattacks than it has.”   

But the inevitability of future attacks only underscores the importance of exercises like CyberSword 2022.  On a Saturday morning in January in a corner of the Texas State Guard Headquarters building at Camp Mabry, the Cyber Security team hunkered over monitors for an annual event involving what Williams described as a “capture the flag” exercise. After almost half a year of planning, the Texas State Guard went on the defensive against “attackers” from the Virginia Defense Force (Virginia’s state guard force).  

In this role-playing scenario, ‘capturing the flag’ wasn’t the primary goal: it was discovering the latest system end-runs that can make computers vulnerable. “To be able to defend against hackers, you must learn to think like one,” Williams said.  Another goal of the exercise, Bell added, was to serve as a checkpoint for internal training being developed for junior-level members of the Cyber Security Unit.  

To make the process even more realistic, planners recruited some of the sharpest “white hat” hackers in the world.  Participants included Sakura Samurai, an elite team of Cyber Security experts, specializing in poking holes in potential cyber defenses for governmental organizations and corporations worldwide (the hacker team counts former Texas State Guard servicemember Robert Willis among its ranks).  Also participating in the exercise was Darrell Beiner, a decorated combat veteran who serves as Cyber Security Section Chief for the Veterans Affairs Administration.  

By staging real-time simulations of cyber-attacks, threat intelligence specialists like Caruso can, as he put it, “understand what a threat actor does, and how they leverage it”, identifying mitigation tools and strategies for Texas’ cyber arsenal. “We set up a simulated enterprise network, complete with web servers, FTP servers, active directory, simulated desktops, and a real physical firewall and an industrial control network inside of it,” Caruso said. Partnering with the VDF marked a first-of-its-kind cross-border interagency exercise for the Texas State Guard Cyber Security forces, and Bell said he expects such training partnerships to become more common as threats become more widespread and complex.   

“The original concept for this was that it was supposed to be just an internal training activity just for the cyber team here in the Texas State Guard,” Bell said. “But it caught the attention of people in higher echelons who understand the importance of sharing cyber security expertise to meet the growing threat. In the future, we are going to be inviting other agencies to participate and expand the exercise to include more complex technologies, make the challenge more difficult, and in coming years help the cyber world become a safer place for everyone.”   

Central to that vision are highly trained experts in the field of Information Technology. The Texas State Guard continues to look for experienced IT professionals and others with an interest in helping defend the Lone Star State from an ever-evolving array of threats.  While prior military experience is not required - the ability to meet the standards of the Guard and a willingness to serve fellow Texans is essential.  

The Texas State Guard, a branch of the Texas Military Department, conducts homeland security and community service activities under the umbrella of Defense Support to Civil Authorities, augmenting the Texas Army National Guard and Texas Air National Guard as required.  More information about the Texas State Guard and recruitment contacts can be found online at tmd.texas.gov/state-guard. 

From Tragedy to Triumph: Texas State Guard Soldier Turns Spotlight on Mental Health

By David Brown, 1LT, Texas State Guard 

DALLAS – In the military, the virtues of leadership and duty are often highly celebrated, while mental health is less often discussed.  But a new memoir by a Dallas-based officer in the Texas State Guard is both a stirring account of resilience amid the mental health struggles of a family member and a powerful reminder of how mental wellness can bolster military preparedness.  “Letters from the Last Pope” by Texas State Guard Capt. Phoebe Sisk (née: Pope), explores the ripple effects of her mother’s suicide and the persistent stigmas surrounding mental illness.  

“My dad told us she went to sleep and didn’t wake up.” 

That’s how 5-year-old Phoebe Pope learned about her mother’s suicide. The youngest of 12 kids, Pope’s family fell upon hard times following the tragedy of her mother’s death and had relatively few possessions, living in a home in Fort Worth that was in a constant state of disrepair.  “For years we didn’t have heat or air conditioning, nor did we have a refrigerator or stove…”  Her parents were artists, money was tight, and fights between them, unfortunately, grew more and more common in Phoebe’s early years.  

While certain first childhood memories were full of love and wonder created by her creative and maternalistic mother, later memories took on the trauma of her mother’s mental health decline and include the day her mother threw the garbage into the front seat of the family car; as well as being left alone at night on a bus bench at 4 years old; and police visits to her grandfather’s home to recover her and her siblings on occasions when her mother swept them away from the family home in the middle of the night. 

Phoebe’s father struggled as a single parent to maintain the home, especially after the worsening of her mother’s mental health that resulted in her taking her own life.  Being a lone wolf, Phoebe’s father wasn’t prone to reach out for help and had very few friends with whom he interacted, creating a sense of isolation for the family. While Phoebe and the youngest siblings felt respected, valued, and included in their small Fort Worth schools, they were aware of whispers from concerned mothers in the community, and that “we kept our lives secret - we didn’t talk about it. We couldn’t help but feel different.” Sisk says. 

Today, as a Captain in the Texas State Guard, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, and the author of a new book on mental health, Sisk is leading the way in discussing mental health with candor and honesty.  

“In anyone’s story, you see a part of your own,” Sisk says. In Sisk’s story, many readers will recognize the feelings of shame and isolation that often accompany tragedy, poverty, mental illness, and other difficult life challenges, just as they will also recognize the same inspiring resilience that allows us to overcome overwhelming odds.  “We don’t rise up despite our stories, we rise up because of them,” says Sisk.  

“We didn’t think of our lives as tragic at the time, it was just our normal,” Sisk says about the experience of growing up a painfully shy child in a family where one beloved parent was gradually and heartbreakingly lost to the family due to mental illness.  After her mother had a wrongful hysterectomy, episodes of manic depression became more common.  Her parents divorced, and her father did the best he could to insulate the kids from their mother’s struggles.  “He really never talked about my mother’s suicide,” Sisk recalls. “He always spoke well of her... always light, never dark.  Much of what I knew about my mom I learned through stories my siblings would share or my father’s memories of her.  I didn’t even know the truth about my mother’s death until after my son was born.” 

According to research published by the National Institutes of Health, the impact of parental mental illness can affect children in a variety of ways, ranging from social deficits characterized by difficulties in work or marriage to issues related to poor self-esteem, and social adjustment. Many kids from such backgrounds have negative experiences in their childhood including abuse, neglect, isolation, and guilt.  But Sisk says having a father who believed in her and strong, supportive relationships with teachers resulted in her developing a sense of self that kept her true to her talents and interests–albeit in a private way. 

Sisk signed up to work on the school paper and joined the band.  Her enthusiasm for school cleared the way for her to skip a grade, graduate early and enter junior college at age 16. Later, at Austin College, Phoebe met Kevin, the man who would become her husband and her inspiration to join the U.S. Marine Corps.  After 4 years of federal military service, the Sisks embarked on careers in business and education; later starting a real estate firm, and raising two kids of their own (Elijah, 21, and Sarah Katherine, 19). 

“Teaching kids and mentoring others made me realize that as people, we rise up to others’ expectations- and that confidence, optimism, and our belief in others are often self-fulfilling prophecies,” Sisk says.  “Encouragement is often overlooked, but all of us, at one point or another, influence others in ways we do not know.  We all need to acknowledge that, at some point, we’ll be playing that role.” 

Sisk found herself playing just such a role in 2021 at a Texas State Guard leadership conference (one of the many educational opportunities available to service members) in her presentation of spiritual mentoring, a sharing that acknowledged the gifts of both intellect and spirit that we impart on others, often with no awareness of the fullness of the impact. 

Sisk’s presentation at that conference was powerful, says Brig. Gen. Roger Sheridan, who now commands the 6th Brigade, Texas State Guard. “It gave leaders at all levels a greater capacity to express themselves and a greater capacity for understanding others.  And the more we understand about others, the better we can do ourselves.”  

Sisk’s message fits squarely within the Guard’s “mission-ready” imperative, according to Capt. David Arnold, who serves in the Texas State Guard’s T3 (operations) section.  “Whether we’re responding to hurricanes, on a security support mission, or some other emergency…we have to be able to know that we can meet our objectives, and that requires resilience. We need to be able to talk about it–and train on it.”  

Though earlier in her life Sisk had been reluctant to speak about her experiences, the pandemic lockdown inspired her to slow down, to take stock of all that she had overcome, and to encourage others not to be defined by the same stigma, shame, and tragedy that had bound her for years.  This realization would serve as the inspiration for “Letters From the Last Pope: A Journey Home” (Scribe Publishing), her memoir aimed at encouraging others to embrace the power of personal transformation through intentional awareness and “radical compassion” to overcome a painful past. 

In her book, framed as 26 stirring ‘letters’ to people who have altered her own life’s trajectory, Sisk explores the concept of epigenetics: how behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way one’s genes work, and thus how unhealed trauma can affect a family for generations.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control, epigenetic changes can alter how the body reads a DNA sequence - but unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes are reversible.  The book, Sisk says, reflects a realization that “we’re meant to share our stories.”  It is, as Sisk explains it, a kind of “spiritual mentorship” that sets the example for others to do the same, with enormous healing potential. 

“We carry shame and so we don’t tell our stories. But we’re meant to share so that we can begin the healing process - not only for ourselves but for someone else.  That’s the most beautiful part of it, looking at the past through a lens of grace. Those things that happened made us into the people that we are. There are no ‘mistakes’ in that story.  There’s a beautiful thread that will reveal itself – though it’s sometimes hard to see in the middle of pain and challenge.”  

Rising from family tragedy, the author offers a moving, often poetic first-hand account of a little girl who grew up to become not only top of her class in college, but a gifted educator, author, businessperson, public servant, and parent. In “Letters from the Last Pope”, Phoebe Sisk outlines an arc of redemption made possible by embracing mental health with honesty and candor, overcoming ancestral trauma, and building a new future. 

“It makes a lot of sense that we do the work, so our kids don’t have to.” 

Sisk serves in the T3 (operations) unit of the Texas State Guard Headquarters and Headquarters Company (Camp Mabry/Austin), and is an adjunct to the T7 (training) staff.  

As a branch of the Texas Military Department, the State Guard provides mission-ready military forces to assist state and local authorities during emergencies and augments the Texas Army National Guard and Texas Air National Guard as required. “It’s good to be around purpose-driven people,” Sisk says, noting the diverse skills and backgrounds of her colleagues in uniform, and the selfless sacrifice service members undertake on behalf of their fellow Texans. “There’s a sacredness to their service,” Sisk adds. 

The Texas State Guard is looking for healthcare professionals, lawyers, teachers, engineers, and others willing to make a commitment to serving their fellow Texans.  Though many members of the State Guard have prior federal military experience, it is not a requirement for service.  More information about opportunities in the Texas State Guard can be found online at tmd.texas.gov/state-guard. 

A Fake Disaster to Save Real Lives: Texas State Guard Troops Tackle a Worst-Case Scenario

By Phoebe Sisk, Capt., Texas State Guard 

AUSTIN (Camp Mabry), Texas – In the small coastal Texas town of San Patrick, local farmers fretted as the worst possible conditions came to bear.  With drought and heat conditions reaching 2011 records, the failure of the city’s water treatment plant- the sole municipal water source for all 149,000 inhabitants- threatened the worst crop and livestock losses of the decade. San Patrick citizens faced an immediate emergency water shortage advisory and a ban on all non-essential outdoor water use.  

Only…there is no such place as San Patrick, Texas.   

Its inhabitants and the water treatment plant failure were all part of a hypothetical- contrived as a training simulation for disaster response, under the direction of Texas State Guard Lt. Col. Tony Dale, in coordination with seasoned Texas Emergency Operations Center (TEOC) battle staff.  

Even better news? After successfully navigating the evolving constructs of this disaster scenario through applying practices and resources gleaned through this training, participating Texas State Guard soldiers will be better prepared than ever to respond to real-life emergencies within their state.  

According to Dale, this objective was a main goal in developing the TEOC awareness course, a project Dale designed to satisfy a requirement in his own professional military education as a student in the Command and General Staff College program.  “I easily spent 30 hours in the development of this training as a potential qualifier for service members to work in the TEOC, but also to act as a refresher for my own civil affairs staff. While we have all served within the TEOC, it’s important that our training incorporate today’s most current emergency practices and standards so that we are ready to deploy if called on by civil authorities,” Dale said.  

Dale’s comments are reflective of the ever-expanding and adaptive role of the Texas State Guard, which is often called upon to help civilian officials respond to critical situations.  The Texas State Guard is one of three branches of the Texas Military Department, which also includes the Texas Army National Guard and the Texas Air National Guard.  All three state forces fall under the command of the state Adjutant General and the Governor as Commander-in-Chief.  

It is not unusual for Texas State Guard service members to take leave from civilian jobs to deploy for a period of 3 days to 2 weeks in response to hurricanes or other natural disasters.  But many are now serving in support of activities such as border security for much longer periods, and within more varied positions of service and leadership than ever before. Dale acknowledges that from his perspective, as mission requirements have become more encompassing, training needs have also grown to be a greater priority.   

“For this reason, in developing the course exercise, I worked closely with T-3 (Operations Team) as well as with experienced members of the TEOC.  I wanted to ensure that all (variables in) the simulated emergency were realistic and that they elicited responses according to current state emergency operation practices,” Dale said.   /p> In addition to receiving preliminary two-hour training from the TEOC on WEBEOC (a web-enabled crisis information management system that provides real-time information sharing and situational awareness), participants also received training on current PERSTAT (personnel accountability and compensation) forms from the TEOC’s Administrative leader, Texas State Guard Sgt. 1st Class John Saxon. Saxon, a combat Army veteran, joined the State Guard in 2017 and has served within various billets, including five years as an administrative officer handling all aspects of personnel management.   

“Taking care of the troops is priority one,” said Saxon. “One of our main responsibilities within the TEOC is to manage the deployment of service members from home of record to mission, which includes overseeing logistical and administrative tasks involved in troop movement, so training on proper practices and forms becomes very important to ensure safety, accountability, and well-being of our service members,” he said.  

After receiving training from Saxon, participants engaged in a 7-hour role play incorporating the formation of the STAR (State of Texas Assistance Request) initiated by the mayor of the fictitious town of San Patrick.  This was followed by the (mock) mobilization and deployment of Texas State Guard assets, among other state resources, by the State Operations Center (SOC), located at the Department of Public Safety Headquarters in Austin, and managed by the Texas Division of Emergency Management.  Dale’s training scenario provides a stress test for the systems in place, highlighting potential vulnerabilities, and preparing soldiers to take on real-world missions quickly and effectively.  

Staff Sgt. Jason Zachman, the current non-commissioned officer in charge of the TEOC, makes sure all the moving pieces work together to make a rapid Texas State Guard response possible. “The SOC serves as the first warning point and primary control facility- and will operate, as needed, on a 24/7 basis to monitor threats, make notification of threats and provide information on emergency incidents to local, state, and federal officials,” Zachman said. Zachman worked as a member of the Special Operations Center (SOC) team before transitioning to TEOC.    
Zachman is one of a few TXSG service members who has been deployed on state active duty for a period of over two years.  “The learning, exposure, and growth of my positions have been unparalleled,” he said. “Now that I’ve served in the TXSG, I can’t imagine doing anything else that would feel as purposeful as serving my fellow Texans.”   

Like many Texas State Guard soldiers, Zachman is an Army veteran. With his experience as a former military policeman and volunteer fireman, Zachman possesses a uniquely strong skill set in emergency management.  Although Guard members do not have to have prior federal military experience to join, the Guard is always looking for potential recruits with real-world experience in a variety of fields including engineering and construction, medicine, education, information technology, first responders, and other vocations.   

“The readiness of our troops is paramount for executing the missions of the TXSG," said Brig. Gen. Anthony Woods, Commanding General of the Texas State Guard. "When the Governor of Texas activates our forces in times of need for our fellow Texans, our consistent training prepares us to answer the call. I’m proud of the men and women of the TXSG for their commitment to train and deploy when needed.” 

More information about the Texas State Guard, opportunities to serve, benefits, and recruitment contacts can be found online at tmd.texas.gov/state-guard. 

 

Defense Information School honors Texas State Guard Brigade Commander in Hall of Fame induction

By LT Jonathan Hernandez, Texas State Guard, 1st Brigade

Fort Meade, MARYLAND (August 10, 2022) The Defense Information School (DINFOS) inducted Texas State Guard Brig. Gen. Robert Hastings into the DINFOS Hall of Fame Wednesday, August 10, 2022, at a ceremony at Ford Meade, MD. 

The DINFOS Hall of Fame recognizes alum who have a lifetime of service and accomplishment in the military, private sector, and other government and public service roles.

 “As I focus on the moments that stand out to me over the last 40 years, the things that I recall the most are the people who I had the honor and privilege to serve alongside,” said Hastings. “We must never forget that at any point, regardless of our stature, we have the power to influence the trajectory of other people’s lives.”

DINFOS trains U.S. military, Department of Defense civilian, international military, and interagency students in public affairs, journalism, photography, video production, broadcast equipment maintenance, graphic design, and digital media.

“Leadership is not a rank or title; it is a privilege,” Hastings said. “Always put people first, and you’ll find that instead of working with a group of high-performing individuals, you’ll get to work as part of a high-performing team.”

 

While in the Army, Hastings served as a Public Affairs Officer, a DINFOS instructor, and the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs in the George W. Bush administration. In the Texas State Guard, Hastings commands the 1st Brigade, which is responsible for 113 counties in North Texas and the panhandle. He has led troops through disaster response, homeland security, and defense support to civil authorities. In his civilian career, Hastings is the executive vice president of Bell Textron Inc. and leads all aspects of the company’s global marketing and communications programs.
 

 

American Idol Finalist With Texas State Guard Ties in the National Spotlight

By Phoebe Sisk, Cpt., 1st Brigade, Texas State Guard 

If you ask Fritz Hager III what landed him on the 20th season of American Idol, which premiered this past February, he will tell you that yes, it was talent and yes, it was hard work- but even more so it was having to prove, as one of six siblings competing for shared resources, that his commitment to his music was to be taken seriously. 

And as the second son born into a military family and namesake to his West Point graduate father, Hager possessed the pluck and determination, early on, to do just that. 

Having been brought up in the church and exposed to live bands ever since toddlerhood, Hager knew his musical interests at a young age. He was relentless in convincing his parents, Texas State Guard 1st Brigade Lead Chaplain Fritz Hager and wife Sarina, that his fascination was more than a passing fancy. “It took me two years, but I finally persuaded them to get me a guitar in sixth grade. I’ll never forget coming home after only one lesson- I learned four chords- and writing my first song. It was not very good...” 

Clearly, Hager has mastered the learning curve since then, earning comments from viewers that he is “the total package- a true artist.” Not only can he sing, he writes stunningly beautiful original songs, such as “All My Friends” which aired as a rehearsal tape, due to the fact that Hager had contracted covid in May and was unable to perform the round live. Fans were blown away, and even American Idol producers posted on Twitter, “Maybe the best original song on Idol...ever!?” 

Hager believes that his heartfelt approach to his craft has been a niche advantage with fans. 

“Talent can only get you so far, so in addition to working hard, I set about to be as authentic as possible, knowing that American Idol is a reality TV show. I’m not a powerhouse singer, I am a songwriter and storyteller and I tried to pour my heart out at every performance,” said Hager. 

For Hager, reaching the audience in the way that he desired meant really risking and putting himself out there. 

“I think that my superpower is my ability to help others feel deeply. I have always been a feeler, which hurt me in high school- it’s hard to be vulnerable and to have to bottle stuff up. Being a man and being vulnerable is not easy in our culture, especially in my case coming from a military family in the South. It’s easy to shut that part of yourself off,” he said. 

But instead of hiding this aspect of himself from fans, Hager made a courageous and intentional choice to be transparent with his audiences. “Music is a creative outlet to vent our thoughts and feelings- it is something that can be a great tool as it heals all of us,” he said. 

Clearly, viewers feel the catharsis of his songs, voting Hager as one of the top 5 contestants for this season of American Idol, which began casting calls in August of 2021. 

As one of approximately 100,000 contestants to audition virtually during COVID, Hager felt that his initial entrée via Zoom, versus performing in a stadium in front of a live audience, was an advantage in that it made participation easy and accessible. “It’s one of the reasons I decided to try out,” he said. 

But before Hager got comfortable with the large crowds, he first had to brave perhaps the toughest audience of all - his family. 

“It’s hard to logically justify as a music career is so risky,” said Hager. “But my parents and I have learned to bridge that gap and now the conversation is how can we optimize this situation, how can we make this payout for the long run?” 

Hager clearly appreciates the loyalty and strength gleaned from the military roots of his family. “I come from a very supportive family- and they ensured my success in staying balanced as they were truly my only inner circle throughout...” he said. 

According to Hager, his father’s left-brain leaning logic helped him to appreciate the benefit of planning for his right-brain creative career. Additionally, it helped to discuss with him the intensity, stress, and downright trauma of seeing friends cut during Hollywood Week. “He understood that what I experienced was not unlike the military in that few others will ever be able to relate to such a singular and extreme encounter,” said Hager. 

“What Fritz III went through was much like going off to basic training, or even combat, where he was enduring an emotional, transformative experience, with the added pressure-cooker of 5 million people watching,” said the performer’s father, Chaplain Fritz Hager. “(Fritz III) handled it with grit and an incredible focus on the next thing. I was just as proud of how he approached the challenge as what he accomplished!” 

The future looks bright for the younger Hager- and will hopefully include both playing shows and recording, and possibly reuniting with American Idol fellow contestant and friend Leah. Meanwhile, he continues to savor the richness of the memories. “I am filled with joy and fully realize that every minute was a gift from the audience to me,” he said. 

Hager says, above all, he has learned the importance of being a decent person- of being professional, kind, and easy to work with- and hopes to be an example to his younger siblings Henry, Joe, Lucy, and Sam. “My oldest brother Jack is at West Point and has shown us the value of his work ethic. I hope to be a different kind of example of following your passion,” he said. 

Whether Hager (the performer) will join Hagar (his father, the Chaplain) in military service to his home state remains an open question.  If so, he certainly wouldn’t be alone in serving alongside a parent.  While many veterans of federal forces are members of the Texas State Guard, prior service is not required – only a heart of selfless service. Currently, there are opportunities for Texans with a wide range of experiences to serve, from chaplains, lawyers, and law enforcement professionals to engineers, construction workers, health care workers, teachers - and people with exceptional creative talents and skills.   

The Texas State Guard is one of three branches of the Texas Military Department, which also includes the Texas Army National Guard and the Texas Air National Guard.  The Governor is the Commander-in-Chief.  More information about the State Guard and recruitment contacts can be found online at tmd.texas.gov in the State Guard tab.  

The Longest Mission: The Texas State Guard on the Front Lines Against a Deadly Adversary

By David Brown, 1st Lt., Texas State Guard 

It is the longest mission deployment in the 80-plus-year history of the Texas State Guard. And despite its critical, life-saving role, it may be one of the least well-known or understood.   

Margaret Vaughan of Bronson, Texas, a Lt. Col. in the Texas State Guard, remembers the moment it started. It was March 17th, 2020. Covid-19 cases across the US had jumped past the 4,000 mark.  Vaughan, a cattle rancher by trade, had been preparing for this moment for years: a long-duration deployment of Texas State Guard Forces not quite like any other before.  On that day, the request came in for Vaughan to prepare for the coordination of statewide military assets in the fight against Covid-19.  This would be a multi-front battle against a deadly and largely unknown viral adversary.  

“We had to determine the base of operation, the mode of operation, what our tactics would be…,” Vaughan says.  As Texas State Guard Engineer Units deployed to sites across the state to evaluate possible hospital overflow locations to treat the sick, Vaughan went into action coordinating with the Texas Department of Emergency Management, the Department of State Health Services, Texas Task Force One, specialists within the Texas Military Department (which includes the Texas State Guard, the Texas Army National Guard, and the Texas Air National Guard) and other state agencies to structure a central hub: a pandemic-focused State Operations Center (SOC). 

Over the years, the Texas State Guard has been involved in hundreds of deployments of highly-trained mission-ready military forces in support of civil authorities during weather events like hurricanes and tornadoes, conducting search and rescue missions on land and water, setting up shelters, medical triage units, and more.  But “this would be a novel mission for the Texas Military Department,” Vaughan says.  

Novel, certainly. But a mission the Texas State Guard was prepared for.  

Years earlier, Vaughan and her team conducted an incident exercise for a hypothetical statewide emergency, operating from a ballroom in a downtown Austin hotel.  Now that the statewide emergency was real, Vaughan set up shop in the same ballroom, managing a remote SOC for Covid response.  Up went tables and large screen monitors to track the spread of Covid and manage incoming requests for assistance statewide.  Specialists in logistics took up positions, dispatching resources like PPE (personal protective equipment) to needed hospitals, nursing homes, and other facilities. Troops and assets were tracked and deployed from the military desk in the SOC by highly-trained Texas State Guard specialists including Cpl. Christie Cole from Houston.   

Cole has been serving five-days-on/two-days-off in the SOC for 14 months in a variety of positions.  The SOC is her sixth deployment since joining the Texas State Guard in 2019. 

“The SOC has been my home away from home,” Cole says. An office assistant in Tomball and a part-time college student, Cole says the experience working in the SOC has been deeply rewarding on many levels.  

“I come from a military family.  I grew up seeing people in uniform, and I’ve always had the mind that you serve others before yourself,” Cole says.  But Cole isn’t unmindful of the benefits that come with her service: her training in the Texas State Guard is being applied as college credit as she works toward her AAS degree at Kilgore College.  

“You can benefit from serving your state and serving others,” Cole adds. “I don’t think enough people in Texas know about the benefits of being a member of the Texas State Guard.” 

Benefits of Guard membership include college credit, tuition assistance, a daily stipend when called to State Active Duty, job protections when called to duty, a free ‘Super Combo’ hunting and fishing license, and, perhaps more importantly, the pride and satisfaction that comes from serving fellow Texans while wearing the uniform of the most highly regarded State Guard force in the United States.  

During a recent visit to the SOC by the Acting Commanding General of the Texas State Guard, Brig. Gen. Anthony Woods presented Cole with the Commanding General’s Individual Award in commendation for her service.   

Also receiving the award during Woods’ visit was 1st Brigade Staff Sgt. Kevin Dos Santos of Forney, who has been serving in the SOC for more than 2 and a half years. During that time, Dos Santos has served in almost every role in the SOC, from taking in STAR requests (requests for assistance from state and local officials), to logistics, security, tracking assets, providing status updates from health care workers, and much more.  

“During the first year of Covid, I was responsible for working with hospitals across the state–finding out how many patients they had, what supplies and equipment were needed…” Dos Santos says. “Early on, the hospitals couldn’t have extra, but they had so many patients, I knew that if we couldn’t get the supplies to them, people might die.  The urgency of people waiting on that equipment was hugely challenging.” 

Receiving the Commanding General’s Individual Award took Dos Santos by surprise. “I was just doing my job, I didn’t expect anything that special. For someone like General Woods to show that he appreciates my work–it just meant the world to me.” 

Like many who serve in the Texas State Guard, Dos Santos is quick to credit his spouse, Edna, for supporting his service to Texas (“she gives me the freedom to serve and says ‘keep going’!”), and just as quick to acknowledge his colleagues.  “The greatest thing is the leadership here—the best of the best. We work a lot of long hours, and it’s ‘team always, mission first’. That’s one of the most precious lessons I’ve learned here: you’ve gotta take care of your team.”   

Dos Santos says he expects to stay on at SOC until the work is done. And now, with new Covid variants surfacing and surging, what was already the Texas State Guard’s longest mission on record is getting even longer.  Current orders in the SOC have been extended through August: two months past the planned mission end date.  The mission could be extended further. 

“I’ll be here ‘til the end,” Dos Santos says, a smile in his voice. 

The SOC’s range of operations underscores the ongoing need for service members with experience in law enforcement, logistics, health sciences, information technologies, and more.  Prior military service is not a requirement for membership in the Texas State Guard, but continuing training, compliance with military standards, and a spirit of public service are essential.   

More information about the Texas State Guard, including opportunities and recruitment contacts, can be found online at tmd.texas.gov. 
 

The Search for Excellence: Texas State Guard Soldiers Train for Highly Specialized Search and Rescue Missions

By Jeremy Stark, Pfc., 1st Brigade, Texas State Guard 

STEPHENVILLE, Texas – Over the past five months, 34 service members of the Texas State Guard have been participating in Search and Rescue (SAR) training to become the newest additions to the SAR mission-ready roster. During the May 2022 training weekend, candidates of the 22-01 SAR and Del Rio classes participated in Wilderness First Aid (WFA) training as a final hurdle before becoming SARTECH II certified by the highly respected National Association for Search and Rescue. 

Going through the SAR training program is no simple task, and the final Texas State Guard WFA training weekend was no exception. To ensure candidates are well-rounded and well-equipped to handle some of the most challenging medical conditions service members come across, instructors Capt. Richard Bruner and Sgt. Jennifer Lee of Dallas, both members of Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Brigade of the Texas State Guard, demonstrated the improvised use of first aid equipment, instructed soldiers in wildlife identification (snakes, spiders, etc.), and led courses on how to deal with potential allergies and anaphylaxis (shock) in the field, in addition to standard first aid topics. The training was mentally and physically demanding. 

Candidates were evaluated on their knowledge of first aid skills which are used in caring for an ill or injured person in a remote environment where care by a physician in a controlled setting or transportation is not readily available (being an hour or more away from advanced care is a common real-world scenario for many SAR missions). Soldiers also had to demonstrate proficiency in various other topics including scene safety, proper use of personal protective equipment, triage/patient assessment, and prioritizing treatment as well as team dynamics. 

“It is extremely important for team leaders to be able to guide their team members in specific jobs to best provide care for, triage and package, then potentially transport individuals who are lost and found in a wilderness setting,” said 1st Brigade Staff Sgt. Christopher Parrish, of McKinney, one of the SAR instructors. “All these things must happen simultaneously, fluidly, and efficiently to ensure the safety and well-being of everyone involved and conclude a successful mission.” 

During WFA training, soldiers gained knowledge and skills necessary to provide first aid and medical care in an austere environment where they may not have access to the same resources often taken for granted in an urban environment.  

Although troops have completed the SAR course and are now set to become SARTECH II certified, soldiers know this is just a ‘next step’; since mission readiness is a watchword in the Texas State Guard, training is an ongoing process for every Guard member. Just as their instructors become experts in the field by participating in SAR missions over many years and in many different environments and situations, the new skills these candidates have learned will serve as a platform on which to build as they continue their journey as citizen-soldiers, fellow Texans serving Texas. 

Intensive and professional emergency training is a primary aspect of the commitment the men and women of the Texas State Guard sign up for when they swear in, no matter what area or mission they may be assigned to. For more than 80 years, soldiers wearing the uniform of the Texas State Guard have responded to weather disasters including tornadoes and hurricanes, civil disturbances, and Search and Rescue operations (including the aftermath of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster), and much more. 

“My goal in the State Guard is to be the best version of me that I can be by pushing myself in areas that not only would make me stand out but would provide me with the tools necessary to be most effective,” said Pfc. Chad Scott of the 6th Brigade, one of the SAR graduates. “One way to achieve that is by training in the specialized areas that will maximize my potential, such as SAR.” Many service members find training opportunities such as the SAR course to be a uniquely rewarding part of their service in the Guard, being also applicable to personal and professional life as they prepare to answer the call to support civil authorities during emergencies statewide. 

The Texas State Guard is one of three branches of the Texas Military Department, which also includes the Texas Army National Guard and the Texas Air National Guard. While many persons with previous federal military service are members of the Texas State Guard, prior military experience is not required. However, a willingness to serve others, to continually train and meet the high standards of the Texas State Guard is essential. A full range of benefits, opportunities, and recruitment contacts can be found online at tmd.texas.gov under the “State Guard” tab.