From combat boots to a crown, Texas Guardsman named Mrs. Texas Galaxy

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Photo By Sgt. Steve Johnson | Texas Army National Guard soldier and Mrs. Texas Galaxy, Staff Sergeant San Juanita Escobar poses for photos at Camp Mabry, in Austin, Texas, Mar. 30, 2018.

TX, UNITED STATES

04.04.2018

Story by Sgt. Steve Johnson

100th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

 

AUSTIN, Texas - The southernmost tip of Texas falls into what is colloquially known as “The Valley.” No one really knows why it’s called this since the actual Rio Grande Valley proper consists of just the four counties of Hidalgo, Cameron, Willacy and Starr counties and the nearest mountains are hundreds of miles away. The land is flat, tropical and the home of a predominantly, Hispanic population.

It was there, in what she calls the “blink-and-you'll-miss-it” town of Premont that Texas Army National Guard Staff Sgt. San Juanita Escobar took the first steps that would both change her life and the lives of hundreds of young women in Texas and around the world.

These first steps consisted of beauty pageants in the nearby and even smaller town of Concepcion, where pageant competitions are the source of longstanding family rivalries, and defending a title is a matter of honor. Back then no one anticipated that this south Texas girl from the Valley would rise to the title of Mrs. Texas Galaxy.

“Pageants were always something that my family did,” Escobar said. “We had the crown for years, so it was something you just did when you reached a certain age. After that, I competed in several smaller, regional pageants and county fairs.”

Those pageants led to small, local modeling jobs and eventually to auditions in California. But as much as Escobar dreamed of getting out of the small town she lived in, she decided this was not the path she wanted to follow. Commitments at home made her decide to decline the audition call-backs.

“At the time, I wasn’t going to pick up and move to California,” she said. “I had sports, school and my friends that were more important to me. I also didn’t want to do that to the rest of my siblings, so I put all that on the back burner.”

So Escobar stayed in Premont, filling every spare moment of time with studies, volleyball, basketball, cross-country, tennis, and band until one day during her senior year she was approached by a recruiter from the Texas Army National Guard. 

Then everything changed, and it changed in a matter of days. 

“When the National Guard recruiter came and talked to me, and explained the education benefits, I was sold and it became a matter of ‘how fast can we do this?’” Escobar said. “So I met my recruiter on Tuesday and I was enlisted by Friday.”

Naturally, the abruptness of Escobar’s decision came as a quite a shock to friends and family. But while joining the military was a leap into unknown territory for Escobar and her family, the lure of education and travel while still being able to serve close to home was irresistible to the 17 year -old.

“I never really knew much about the military,” she said. “When they told me I could serve part-time, serve my country, still make a change in the world, better my community and still get my education, that’s really what made the National Guard stand out from the other services.”

In July of 2008, Escobar finally left the small towns of her childhood for basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.

“I’m very competitive. I always want to win and be the best, so I used that as my driving force,” she said.

Basic Training was not without some challenges for Escobar. This was her first time really being away from her home and her family. Without them, she had to discover and nurture new internal strengths to help her get through some of the tougher moments on her path to becoming a soldier.

“My strength to continue was knowing that this was something that I truly wanted,” she said. “I knew it was going to change my life for the better and I knew it would make my family proud.”

When she graduated in November of that year, Escobar returned to Texas and was assigned to the 368th Engineer Battalion, in Corpus Christi. There she worked in personnel administration, processing paperwork for other soldiers to deploy. It was also while there that she quickly began to feel like it wasn’t enough.

“I was there for maybe two drills before I started seeing that all my friends were deploying and I really loved the National Guard active life, so I volunteered to deploy,” she said.

By this point many might look for a chance to relax, but Escobar was looking for a chance to be on the move again. She had been home for about six months when an opportunity came up to deploy to Djibouti, Africa with 3rd Squadron, 124th Cavalry Regiment as a member of the security forces for a civil affairs team.

While in Africa, the future Mrs. Texas Galaxy saw a problem, and in a move that would come to be a hallmark of her military career, she decided to help solve it.

“While I was assigned to the civil affairs team, I helped create the Women’s Initiative Program in Ethiopia,” Escobar said. “Because of how high the school dropout rate is for young women, we developed special groups to go to different villages and orphanages to educate and empower them to speak to their political figures and to also inform other women about different political and medical issues.“ In many parts of Africa, women are routinely subjected to discrimination and violence by virtue of tradition or customs. Escobar’s team was engaged to address these issues head on through a combination of education and strength.

“The women always felt alone, like it was them against everyone, so we brought groups together for school and we would teach them that if males don’t want to help them, they can help each other,” she said. “That effort fostered an environment of empowerment for them and let them know that their internal strength could be used to benefit each other.”

The first groups started with 20 girls who were between the ages of 18 to 23, but would eventually reach out to thousands of girls of all ages. The Women’s Initiative Program also worked closely with the Improving the Quality of Primary Education program and the National Women’s Coalition Against HIV and AIDS, to reach even further. When then Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno heard about the program he expanded it, leading to an outreach in 13 different countries that focused on teaching women to advocate for themselves.

When that mission was over, Escobar returned home and eventually became a recruiter for the Texas Army National Guard so she could continue to change young people’s lives the way her own life was changed. It was here that she again saw a specific problem that she felt she could solve.

“When I was a recruiter, my motivation was that I knew where I started and I know where I’m at now and I just want to tell people that there’s going to be light if that’s what they choose, if they choose to turn their challenges into a positive,” Escobar said. “When I would talk to students, the females would always say ‘Oh, I’m too girly to serve in the military,’ or they would worry they weren’t going to be able to ‘be girly.’”

So she did what any recruiter would do in that situation. She started doing pageants again.

“I started doing beauty pageants again and then I would go into schools and show them a pageant picture but I would be there in uniform and I would say that ‘you can’t tell me you can’t do this.’ It was after that I started seeing more of an ‘I can do this’ attitude,” Escobar said.< /p>

Going back in the pageant world after travelling the globe as a Soldier gave Escobar a unique perspective. She drew on those experiences and prepared as rigorously as she would for a military mission, using the training and confidence she gained while serving to make her an even tougher and more determined competitor. After three years, Escobar left the recruiting world to dedicate more time to school but was still competing in pageants.

On March 10th, 2018 she was crowned Mrs. Texas Galaxy. The Galaxy Pageant system ends with the Galaxy International Competition in Orlando, Florida. In July she will represent Texas against dozens of competitors from all over the world. Despite this potential for international celebrity, her primary focus remains serving those in need.

As Mrs. Texas Galaxy, she focuses on highlighting suicide prevention for veterans and spreading awareness. And as a Texas Guardsman she focuses on helping others around the world and specifically her fellow Texans.

“As a member of the National Guard I have been able to go to multiple countries but I have also been able to serve stateside,” said Escobar. “I saw the impact of what it meant when our soldiers went in to help during Hurricane Harvey, and how much our citizens appreciated that. To me that’s important because these are our friends and family. Who is going to take care of them better than us, ourselves?”

Texas State Guard Builds Partnerships

Story and photos by Sgt. Chris Feriante 
Texas State Guard Public Affairs

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Privates 1st Class . James Little and Lee McWilliams, 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment, Texas State Guard, scan an Emergency Tracking Network (ETN) identification wristband on a volunteer, role playing as an evacuee, and on her dog during a training exercise with Walker County Office of Emergency Management in Huntsville, Texas, February 24, 2018.  The Texas State Guard is trained on ETN which helps to track the location of evacuees and pets during an emergency or disaster.  (Texas State Guard photo by Cpl. Chris Feriante)

HUNTSVILLE, Texas – In preparation for the 2018 hurricane season, the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment, Texas State Guard, partnered with local and state emergency management agencies February 24, 2018 to practice and rehearse combined operation capabilities in Huntsville.

The Texas State Guard, in coordination with Walker County Emergency Management, Texas Division of Emergency Management and Sam Houston State University Emergency Management, participated in a joint evacuation exercise to strengthen skills using the Emergency Tracking Network system.  Operating the ETN is one of the Texas State Guard's mission-essential tasks.
    
"We are focused on this exercise as both a training opportunity for our guardsmen to use the ETN system and as an opportunity to build a strong relationship with the Walker County emergency management folks and the Huntsville community," said Lt. Col. Arthur Levesque, 2nd battalion commander.
    
The ETN provides a network to maintain accountability of evacuees throughout a disaster; from the time they board evacuation mass transit, to their arrival at a shelter and finally back to where they boarded the mass transit after a storm.  Each evacuee is given a yellow wrist band which has an identification number unique to each individual.  Family pets, as well as medical and mobility devices are also banded and can be tracked together.    
    
With students from Sam Houston State University acting as evacuees being transported to the Walker County Emergency Shelter, 40 guardsmen from the unit registered evacuees and tracked the role player’s movements from the simulated evacuation site at the university to the shelter.  To make the exercise as real as possible, both pets and medical and mobility equipment were required to be evacuated and tracked.  
    
"The objective of our training today is to give guardsmen hands-on experience using ETN so that we are ready to provide to our fellow Texans effective assistance during an emergency or disaster," said 1st Sgt. Charles Sumner.
    
Walker County Judge Danny Pierce stressed the importance of training with the Texas State Guard and emergency management agencies. 
    
“During Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, we sheltered 150,000 evacuees along the I-45 corridor within Walker County,” said Pierce.  “At that time we did not have a way to track the movement of evacuees.  So we lost people, and we couldn’t find them.  The Texas State Guard turned out in huge numbers for this ETN exercise which raised our comfort level knowing that we have these guys behind us in an emergency.”
    
The Walker County Office of Emergency Management coordinated the exercise which also included the Walker County Community Emergency Response Team, the Walker County Sheriff's Department, Huntsville Independent School District, the Walker County Animal Issues Group and the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council.
    
The Atlantic Hurricane season begins June 1st. 

Breaking the Language Barrier: Texas State Guard Utilizes Different Languages to Serve Fellow Texans

Story by Capt. Esperanza Meza
19th Regiment, Texas State Guard Public Affairs

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Sgt. Allen Barnfield, 19th Regiment, Texas State Guard, communicates using sign language with a shelter guest during Hurricane Harvey at Athens Elementary School, San Antonio, Texas, August 27, 2017. (Texas State Guard photo by Capt. Esperanza Meza)

Whether rescuing families and pets from flooded homes, lending a helping hand to parents and children who need a place to sleep in a shelter, or distributing basic necessities and medical care during a natural disaster or emergency, the Texas State Guard knows that communicating with people is vital to every mission. When every minute counts these guardsmen do not want language to become a barrier for getting their fellow Texans help.

Sgt. Allen Barnfield, 2nd Battalion, 19th Regiment, Army Component, decided to learn American Sign Language because he wanted to assist people who could not hear.  Last summer when Hurricane Harvey displaced tens-of thousands of residents, he used his sign language skills to communicate with eleven evacuees at shelters.

“Being able to interpret for the deaf evacuees made me realize how important it is to be able to communicate with them,” he said. “The fact that I could provide them with information through sign language made them feel much better about staying in the shelter.”

Barfield said that he was brought to tears when one of the children he had interpreted for drew him a picture to thank him for making their stay more bearable.

For another member of the Texas State Guard, it was his knowledge of Spanish that helped place a frightened young by at ease when carrying him to a rescue boat.

“If time is of the essence and English skills are limited, providing direction and guidance in their language gives them confidence that we will get their family to safety,” said Master Sgt. Robert Lewis, 3rd Battalion, Texas Maritime Regiment.

While the size and geographic diversity of the state makes it a melting pot, guardsman like Cpl. Zaw Maung of the 19th Regiment, who speaks Burmese, become a critical language asset during times of need. Maung used Burmese with shelter guests at the NRG Stadium in Houston during Hurricane Harvey.  He created signs and gave announcements in Burmese and worked as a translator at a help desk.  
    
“If I had not been in the Texas State Guard, I would not have been in the position to help this community,” said Maung.  Communicating in my native tongue made the Burmese guests feel a little better during a most distressful time because of the hurricane." 
    
During Operation Lone Star, the largest medical humanitarian operation in the country and mass casualty training exercise in the Rio Grande Valley, Capt. Margarita Elestwani, Texas Medical Brigade, assisted patients and physicians through her ability to communicate medical terms in Spanish, Tagalog (Filipino language) and French.  Another Texas Medical Brigade member at OLS, who also speaks Tagalog, Capt. Abram Braza, 2nd Battalion, used his ability to communicate in a Filipino dialect to reunite a lost elderly Filipino man with his family.  
    
Although those with multilingual skillsets help serve fellow Texans, there are times these language capabilities also help communicate with the members of the media and dignitary visitors, further enhancing the delivery of needed messaging. For Staff Sgt. Gregory Illich, 1st Battalion, 8th Regiment, his Spanish fluency enabled him to serve as an interpreter when a Chilean military delegation observed OLS.  
    
“One member of the Chilean delegation gave me a challenge coin for assisting them and I gave him my Texas flag patch from my uniform,” said Illich. “I was honored to be able to use my fluency in Spanish to assist the Rio Grande Valley community as well as act as interpreter for our Chilean guests.”
    

Texas Guardsmen partner with international allies; improve disaster response skills

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Texas Army National Guard engineers from the 836h Engineer Company, 136th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, work alongside soldiers from the Indiana National Guard, the Czech Republic and Slovakia in support of Operation Toxic Lance, a search and rescue exercise involving a chemical warfare scenario, March 12th – 23rd, 2018, at Training Area Lest in central Slovakia. The soldiers were brought together as part of the National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program that focuses on building interoperability and strengthening international relationships through military-to-military exchanges. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Steven Smith)

SLOVAKIA

03.21.2018

Courtesy Story

Texas Military Department

 

Training Area Lest, Slovakia – Seventeen Texas Army National Guard engineers from the 136th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade’s 836th Engineer Company provided search and rescue support and participated in a multinational exercise, Operation Toxic Lance, March 12th – 23rd, 2018, at Training Area Lest in central Slovakia.

The operation brought together chemical and engineer trained soldiers from the Texas and Indiana Army National Guards as well as the Slovakian and Czech Republic militaries, as part of the National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program that focuses on building interoperability and strengthening international relationships through military-to-military exchanges.

The Texas-based soldiers are search and rescue qualified and provide real world response to FEMA Region VI as one part of the Texas-run Homeland Response Force, under the command of the 136th. The purpose of this exercise was to participate with and to demonstrate search and rescue skillsets to partnered service members in the Slovakian and Czech Republic military chemical response units.

“We do not have any type of search and rescue units, or soldiers trained in that discipline here in the Slovak Army,” said Lt. Col. Oliver Toderiska, Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives Battalion commander for the Slovakian Army. “Seeing the Texas soldiers integrated with our chemical response teams, working hand in hand with our own soldiers shows us how we could also use search and rescue.”

While Texas brought refined search and rescue skills, techniques and procedures to the exercise to share with their partners, their Slovakian allies brought experienced chemical experts to share training and response procedures.

The Texas search and rescue team has trained countless hours on simulated exercises, involving scenarios such as accidental and terrorism themed mass explosions, radiation threats and hazardous chemicals. But the main effort during Operation Toxic Lance was a chemical weapons threat and each day a new scenario was presented around that threat forcing soldiers to respond to new challenges.

One scenario presented a lab, run by a terrorist organization that manufactured chemical weapons and released a chemical.
“We’ve worked a lot with how to perform in and mitigate radiation threats, but we haven’t spent a lot of time on weaponized chemical agents,” said Sgt. Myles Merriweather, Texas Army National Guard search and rescue team member. “We can take what we’ve learned here and use it to establish our own TTP’s back home.”

Each service member involved in Operation Toxic Lance went through a scenario where a live chemical agent was used. For most of the engineers that are certified in search and rescue, this this was the first time they were exposed to a live chemical agent. The exercise built confidence in their equipment, proofed the concept of proper decontamination and showed the importance of technical proficiency in a chemical environment.

“The Texas soldiers have come a long way since they first arrived,” said Slovakian Army Capt. Labraska, doctor of Chemistry for the Slovak unit, speaking on the Texas National Guard soldiers’ ability to adapt to new tactics, techniques and procedures. “By the end of Toxic Lance, your soldiers were just as proficient in our TTP’s as our own.”

The Slovak Army has state of the art chemical labs, reconnaissance vehicles, equipment, agents and they are subject matter experts in combating chemical warfare, but have no formal training in search and rescue disciplines.

With the increased threat of terrorism throughout the globe, the Slovak chemical unit is studying how to improve rapid mobilization, response operations and augment rescue efforts in a chemical attack, should that day ever come.

“The Slovak military doesn’t usually practice with its local first responders, nor is there a procedure in place for it, but luckily that’s something that our task force does very well,” said one of the Texas Guardsmen serving as a search and rescue evaluator for the exercise. “What makes our organization so good at working with any entity and in operational constraints, is that we will augment the efforts on the ground and provide whatever support the Incident Commander needs. Even though we are a military unit, we don’t take over an event, we provide the most good for the most people in whatever capacity we’re needed.”

Texas Guardsmen discussed these methods at the National Slovakia Emergency Response Conference, as well as, Slovak Lt. Gen. Pavel Macko, the Deputy Chief of Defense, British Gen. Andrew Garth serving as the military attaché to Slovakia, and a group of military command staff comprised of leaders from several other countries.

“I don’t know how you Guard soldiers do it,” Garth remarked. “How you’re able to have a combat military specialty and also find the time to train on a completely different task such as this, as complicated as this, and be proficient, is beyond me.”

Participating in Operation Toxic Lance was a huge endeavor for the Texas soldiers involved, every day putting on a chemical suit and mask while conducting physically demanding complex search and rescue operations. But the end result was an experience that was once in a military career.

“The training gave me a new perspective on how Search and Rescue operations can integrate into chemical reconnaissance” said Spc. Katty Gracia, chemical noncommissioned officer for the 836th Engineer Company. “Even with a language barrier, it’s amazing what you can accomplish when you have a common goal and the right motivation.”

Story written by Texas Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Steven Smith

Texas Guardsmen cultivate multinational partnerships through competition

BASTROP, TX, UNITED STATES

03.03.2018

Story by Spc. Gerardo Escobar

100th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

 

BASTROP, Texas — Texas Guardsmen and service members from the Chilean and Czech armed forces battled to earn the title of the 2018 Texas Military Department Best Warrior Feb. 28 - March 3, 2018 at Camp Swift near Bastrop. 

The joint competition provided an opportunity for cultural exchange as well as enhanced military capabilities in a friendly but competitive environment. 

"With our state partnerships, the Czech Republic and Chile, we trade technical expertise, leadership and values on how they may operate and how we may operate with tactics and techniques," said Command Sgt. Maj. Kristopher Dyer, Senior Enlisted Advisor of the Texas Army National Guard.

This year’s best warrior competition brought together 28 candidates who competed in nine rated events that closely imitated real-life and combat situations. 

"Everything within the competition is scenario based to where they would be able to participate in a combat environment or a real-world exercise," Dyer said. "We put them in mental and physical fully blown tests to see how they react under pressure and stress.”

The importance of the relationship between the Texas National Guard, the Czech and Chilean armed forces is being able to predict the thoughts and processes of a partner nation, allowing them to work in unison, Dyer said. 

The inclusion of foreign forces is part of the TMD State Partnership Program, which is partnered with the Czech Republic and Chile. The program facilitates cooperation across all aspects of international civil-military affairs and encouraging people-to-people ties at the state level.

For Staff Sgt. Juan Domingo Silva, a Marine with the Chilean Navy, this was his first time participating in a multinational event. 

“The physical aspect has been challenging but we’ve trained for similar events in Chile,” said Silva. 

The competition meant much more than just winning, it meant representing his country and learning to adapt to a different environment and culture, Silva said.

The program provided Chilean service members with a bilingual sponsor to help with the language barrier during the competition. 

“The culture exchange experience has been valuable,” said Texas Army National Guard Spc. Manuel Najera, Alpha Company, 536th Brigade Support Battalion. Najera served as Silva’s sponsor.

“The most challenging part has been adapting to the Chilean-Spanish dialect,” Najera said. 

Sgt. Jan Hronek, a Czech Republic service member also said interacting with other multinational service members increased his cultural awareness.

“This competition has shown me the similarities between forces and how they operate,” said Hronek. “I feel proud to serve and represent my country abroad.”

The competition enabled competitors to refine their skills and learn from their counterparts.

“At the end of the day this is an event that brings Texas together with two separate countries that we are partnered with,” Dyer said. “Together they learn from each other and benefit from training and different techniques and ways that we can lead our Soldiers and operate in the environments that we are in.”

The winner of the competition will be announced at a banquet in April. Competitors from both Chile and the Czech Republic will be invited back for the ceremony.

Sole female competitor battles for "best warrior"

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Photo By Staff Sgt. Agustin Salazar | Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Brown, 273rd Cyber Operations Squadron education and training specialist, Texas Air National Guard, completes the running portion of a physical training test at the 2018 Best Warrior Competition at Camp Swift March 1, 2018, near Bastrop, Texas. Of the 28 participants who competed from the Texas Army and Air National guards, Brown was the only female competitor. (Texas Air National Guard photo/Staff Sgt. Agustin Salazar)

BASTROP, TX, UNITED STATES

03.02.2018

Story by Staff Sgt. Kristina Overton

136th Airlift Wing/Public Affairs (Texas Air National Guard)

 

Of the more than 3,200 Airmen currently serving in the Texas Air National Guard, only eight were selected to compete at Camp Swift as part of the 2018 Texas Military Department Best Warrior Competition. Among the selectees, Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Brown, 273rd Cyber Operations Squadron education and training specialist, Texas Air National Guard, stood out from her peers chosen to participate. Not just for her skill and abilities in qualifying to represent her unit, but also as the only female competitor overall.

“Competing seemed like a great opportunity,” said Brown. “For me, it wasn’t an imitation factor. I used to be a Marine and I remember every year my commander would send out an invite for individuals interested in the competition. When I saw the email for this year and saw the list of different knowledge responsibilities I went ahead and tried out.”

The Best Warrior Competition consists of several challenges over a period of four days. Competitors are expected to display proficiency in marksmanship, physical and written tests, land navigation, self-aid buddy care and combat-communications. Though not a part of her day-to-day operations, Brown trained for months prior to familiarize herself with competition requirements.

“The ruck has been the most challenging thus far,” Brown said. “I don't think I was as prepared for the last four miles of fatigue, but it’s something you have to learn and power through on your own. The obstacle course was the most fun. It was hard at points, but the competition is about challenging yourself. Getting over the fear factor.”

Brown has more than fifteen years of combined service between the Marines and Texas Air National Guard. Even with deployments to Iraq under her belt, she still lacked all of the experience needed to be successful to compete. After qualifying at the base-level, her unit was instrumental in making sure that she would be a strong contender.

“It [training] exposed me to a different environment in the Guard,” Brown recalled. “To train, we ran tactical air control party obstacle courses, had weapons knowledge training and did 45-pound ruck marches, which was good because I got exposure. Then they had land navigation at the schoolhouse at Camp Bullis.”

The competition is meant to be grueling, with extreme stress and long testing hours. The simulations reflect real-world combat situations and test the tactical and technical skills of the members being evaluated. 

Competing alongside fellow Airmen, Soldiers and state partners provides a unique opportunity to experience completely different ways of accomplishing the mission, Brown said.

“We all serve.” Brown said. “It’s a humbling experience, and being here I hope is an example that will encourage others to participate. I don't back down from a challenge and I’m proud to have been a part of this event.”

Texas ANG member, Rockport police officer looks back on lessons learned from Harvey

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Photo By Tech. Sgt. Mindy Bloem | Staff Sgt. Nathan Ward (far right) poses for a group photo with his fellow 149th Fighter Wing members during a regularly scheduled drill weekend at his shop, headquartered at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. when Ward is not working as a Guardsman during his drill weekends, he serves full time as police officer in Rockport, Texas. (courtesy photo)

San Antonio, TX, United States

02.08.2018

Story by Tech. Sgt. Mindy Bloem

149th Fighter Wing (Texas Air National Guard)

It’s been several months since Hurricane Harvey devastated Texans residing in the Rockport region. A local police officer there, Nathan Ward, is now reflecting on the days leading up to the hurricane and how his training in the National Guard made a noticeable impact on his first responder duties. 

“My wife will tell you I always stock up on food and water and am ready to go,” said Ward. That’s just the military part of me, I guess.”

Ward, now a staff sergeant assigned to the Air National Guard’s 149th Fighter Wing, located in San Antonio, said that mentality traces back to his 2003 enlistment in the Army National Guard.

“I had gone into the hurricane initially with the mindset of ‘hey, as long as we come out of this, we’ll be alright,’” Ward said. “I’d gone on hurricane missions with the Army Guard several years ago so I knew what this was going to look like.”

Ward tried to pass the benefits of those experiences to his co-workers.

“I said, ‘hey, heads up, just in case this happens, this is what you need to be prepared for,’ and everyone is just brushing me off,” he said. “A lot of them were making fun of me as I was bringing in food and water into the police station before it hit. They were like, ‘you’re taking this way too seriously and you’re packing too much.’ I was like ‘OK, whatever, at least I’ll be prepared.’”

When Ward thinks back on it now, he can’t help feeling vindicated.

“That first night about midnight – a lot of them realized they were hungry and wanted to eat, but no one had brought food and there was very little water,” he said with a laugh and with the benefit of hind sight. “They started realizing pretty quickly that my theory wasn’t so far-fetched. I mean relief came in – water came about a day and a half later, so they were OK.”

After the storm first struck and the eye was passing over their building, Ward and his fellow officers stepped out in pitch blackness in groups of four within a two-block radius to assess the damage. He described familiar smells he compared from deployments he’d rather forget and mist and smoke-filled air akin to what happens after a building is demolished.

“There is this junk that’s in the air – this dust and smoke and all kinds of stuff like that,” Ward said. “Stuff you don’t want to breathe. The air was filled with that. It was like it was hovering. It wasn’t even blowing around. It was just there.”

As the eye wall passed over them and the hurricane resumed, Ward and his team retreated back inside to ride out the second half. All through the night, calls poured into the station of people who had misjudged the situation, tried to leave in their vehicles and had gotten stuck.

“That’s why we tell people take the evacuation seriously,” Ward said. “You never know how bad it’s going to be.”

The next morning and many weeks thereafter, Ward worked extended and exhausting shifts responding to calls and assisting in the long game that is hurricane recovery.

It was during these numerous calls for help that Ward realized just how important all his core military training was in helping him respond to various situations.

“Something that’s echoed here for me is how all the military training has paid off, specifically with Air Force – the core training that’s due annually, like SABC [self-aid buddy care], CPR, PT [physical training], family care plan – everything has played into our situation here,” he said.

Ward elaborated on how physical conditioning especially helped him during intense shifts.

“Just the resiliency, staying in shape – it’s a big deal,” he said. “I can tell you when you’re doing 12 on and 12 off, and especially when you’re doing 14-hour shifts or during initial recovery efforts where we had no days off for several weeks, and all the other stresses that are involved – PT is a big deal.

Ward also praised SABC and CPR training as being “hugely helpful” during the response, and was even pleasantly surprised to see his flightline driver’s training play a part.

“We have an airport here, and there’s no airport police, so the city police actually have to cover the airport,” Ward said. “Other officers can be afraid to drive out on the airfield because they don’t know what they’re doing, so having flightline driver’s training has actually paid off in my job here. I can use that and help the airport respond in whatever they need out here including – and I hope it doesn’t happen – aircraft accidents or hazardous spills.

While some in the Air Force may dislike the idea of computer-based training, Ward’s most recent experience with Harvey has given him fresh insight on the matter.

“Anything that you can think of that we view as CBTs for the Air Force has paid off in this job, including cyber awareness because we all have computers, and we have to deal with everyone’s personal information,” he said. “The state of Texas is pushing a lot of that down now for law enforcement but the Air Force in a lot of ways is ahead of the power curve on that.”

Besides all his military core training, Ward said knowing his Guard family not only had his back but was looking out for his family members made a lasting impression on him.

“Family readiness was a huge deal getting my wife out here and getting her help,” he said. “The Guard has absolutely helped us and stepped in to help her.”

Ms. Shanita Lanier, the 149th Airman and Family Readiness Center coordinator, explained how getting her members the family support is a team effort.

“The key element that is helpful for us is having our key volunteers appointed that the commanders trust to pass on information to and working with the first sergeants – that’s how information comes back to us so we know how to further support and meet the intent of the program for our families,” she said.

Lanier, along with Master Sgt. Eryn Ulmer, Ward’s first sergeant, collected donations from local area stores and other good Samaritans so they could replace items from Ward’s house that were ruined during the storm.

“Each family is important,” Lanier said. “Even if we don’t have a face or a name, if they are connected to you, we can navigate and see what’s out there to get them what they need.”

Ward took comfort in the concern he received from his fellow Gunfighters – a nickname for 149th FW members.

“On the basic level, I appreciate that accountability because it’s an extra set of eyes looking out for you, asking, hey, are you ok? And if you don’t respond, they’re willing to send someone to go look for you,” he said. “That’s really awesome – that they’re willing to fill the gap that much. It’s extra support you wouldn’t get anywhere else.”

Following his experience in Rockport, Ward has developed a newfound respect for the mission.

“At the drop of a hat you might have a natural disaster and have to leave the shop,” he said. “We might have to go help people, so it’s very important to keep up with your deadlines and timelines and mission mandates so we can be ready to go.”

For Ward, his military training complemented his responsibilities not only to his local community but also to the state. These days, he is quick to remind people of this point during his weekends on duty here at the wing.

“What I’ve been telling people is you don’t understand how much everything you do played into what happened here as far as relief - the Houston mission, this mission, all over Texas – you know it’s a big deal,” he said. “It’s very fulfilling to see all that training and all that work paying off.”

Texas National Guard Soldiers earn Expert Infantryman Badge

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Photo By Staff Sgt. Timothy Moore | A U.S. Army Soldier assigned to Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa receives his Expert Infantryman Badge during the badge ceremony at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, Feb. 2, 2018. After two weeks of training and five days of testing, 50 Soldiers completed the process to earn the coveted special skills badge that requires Soldiers to perform an Army Physical Fitness Test, day and night land navigation, a 12-mile forced march, and 30 individual tasks covering weapons, medical, and security patrol skills. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Timothy Moore)

CAMP LEMONNIER, DJIBOUTI
02.06.2018
Story by Staff Sgt. Timothy Moore 
Combined Joint Task
Force - Horn of Africa

After five days of testing, 50 U.S. Army Soldiers assigned to Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) completed the process to earn the Expert Infantryman Badge (EIB) at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, Feb. 2, 2018.

Established in 1944, the EIB is an award designed to build and maintain esprit de corps within U.S. infantry units as well as recognize infantrymen and Special Forces Soldiers who have demonstrated the discipline and mastery of skills critical to being an infantry Soldier.

Beginning with 184 candidates, the 50 successful EIB earners made this iteration’s pass rate roughly two percent better than the Army’s overall 2017 EIB pass rate of 25 percent as reported on the website of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence (MCOE) in Fort Benning, Georgia. 

“It’s the badge that shows you are an expert in your field,” said U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Clinton Petty, Task Force Bayonet senior enlisted leader and EIB board president. “That means a lot for us in the infantry because that’s where you start – with the individual task … to build those teams, squads, and platoons.”

The badge can be awarded to Soldiers who hold an infantry or a Special Forces military occupational specialty (MOS), with the exception of Special Forces medical sergeant, and who meet all the physical and administrative requirements and can complete the qualification process.

However for these Soldiers, obtaining the EIB had a few more obstacles that needed to be navigated even before the process began.

“Being forward deployed, there are a lot of challenges that we face, most notably a supply shortage,” said U.S. Army 1st Sgt. Jonathan Hendrix, 3rd Battalion, 144th Infantry Regiment assigned to Task Force Bayonet, CJTF-HOA and EIB noncommissioned officer in charge of lanes. “We were able to work with a lot of different partner units.” 

Hendrix worked with the Expeditionary Military Facility to get supplies needed to train and conduct the EIB process. He also worked with the leaders of Battle Company, 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division to see how many EIB holders they had assigned to CJTF-HOA to act as cadre during the process. According to Hendrix, the most notable partnership he had was working with U.S. Navy Seabees to build the training grounds used to hold the majority of the EIB process.

“There were several different Seabee units we worked with directly to help us with a lot of the infrastructure - the tables, the platforms, camouflage nets, moving containers around,” Hendrix said. “Without them, we really couldn’t have pulled this thing off. It was absolutely incredible how willing they were each and every time we asked for more. They were always on top of it, ready to help us out at any opportunity.”

Once the training area was completed, a team from the MCOE - who the Battle Company leaders had been in contact with even before Task Force Bayonet arrived at Camp Lemonnier - came out to validate the EIB course and cadres to not only ensure the integrity of the badge is upheld but also grant the Soldiers opportunity to pursue it in a deployed location.

“It was important for us to do that here,” Petty said. “As Guardsmen, we don’t get that opportunity very often at home, so getting the opportunity to do it here was very important to our Soldiers and the force itself, because it makes an infantryman better.”

To earn the EIB, eligible Soldiers must complete four phases. The first phase requires EIB candidates to pass the Army Physical Fitness Test with a score of 80 percent in each event. Candidates are not allowed to retest this portion.

The second phase consists of land navigation exercises, in which candidates must locate three out of four points in both day and night scenarios. If candidates receive a “GO” for this phase, they are allowed to move onto phase three.

The third phase consists of individual testing stations. It requires candidates to pass 30 weapons, medical, and patrol tasks to specific standards. The tasks are chosen from a possible 45 tasks, with several tasks being required to be included in each EIB qualification. Candidates who receive more than two “NO-GOs,” or a double NO-GO on the same station, during this phase are eliminated from the EIB process.

Finally, the fourth phase requires candidates to complete a 12-mile forced march. Candidates must complete the march while carrying 35 pounds in three hours or less, and then immediately complete the tasks associated with “Objective Bull” in 20 minutes or less. For Objective Bull, candidates must evaluate a casualty; apply a tourniquet to control bleeding, and transport the casualty. If a candidate fails to meet the time requirements or perform the procedures in the proper sequence, they are not allowed to retest and are eliminated from the EIB process.

Out of the 50 recipients of the EIB, four members were “true blue.” This distinction means they passed the entire process without having to retest on any part.

“Pinning the badges on these Soldiers is one of the best times of my career, and I’ve been in a long time,” Petty said. “Getting to see those young privates, specialists, and even the sergeants who have been working so hard to get here - this is some of them second or third time trying to get their EIB - that made me feel especially proud for them.”

 

Texas State Guard Engineers Lead the Way

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Texas State Guard Engineer Group conducts an inspection of the Texas National Guard Armory in La Porte, Texas, June 7, 2013.  The Engineer Group was tasked by the Texas Military Department to conduct installation status reports of 36 armories.  (Texas State Guard photo by Sfc. Malcolm Cowdin)

Story by: Chief Warrant Officer Three Janet Schmelzer

Texas State Guard Public Affairs

 

AUSTIN, Texas –The Texas State Guard Engineer Group is a little-known asset utilized by the Texas Military Department and municipalities throughout the state. Over the past five years, these 44 members have built a reputation as the “go-to” resource when engineering and technical service support are needed to assess infrastructure and critical facilities, including military installations, water plants, wastewater treatment, power plants and environmental impact.

The engineers in this unit are highly qualified professionals who hold professional licenses in architecture, civil, mechanical, electrical and environmental engineering and are project and construction management experts in their civilian careers.  Many are members of the Society of Military Engineers and the Texas Society of Professional Engineers, and hold state licenses or certifications in water and wastewater treatment.

“The members of this Engineering Group, like all members of the Texas State Guard, are volunteers who give back to their communities and to the state through their service in the Guard,” said Col. Patrick Fink, commander of the Engineering Group, Texas State Guard. “The engineers and technical support members are bringing their civilian skills, knowledge and expertise to their tasks and missions. Many of our members have previously served in state and federal military forces as well as the Army Corps of Engineers.”

These engineers and technical support personnel therefore became a perfect choice to assist the Construction and Facilities Management Office of the Texas Military Department with annual installation status assessments. In the past five years, Texas State Guard engineering teams have conducted installation status reports at 36Texas Army and Air National armories and facilities in Houston, Austin, San Antonio and the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.

These reports included specific and detailed information on the conditions of facilities which the Texas Military Department utilizes to prioritize funding for future construction and renovation projects. Additionally, this group helps the military department annually to receive tens of millions of additional dollars to renovate facilities from state and federal agencies.

“During their service, our unit members have contributed thousands of hours of professional skills and labor to the Texas State Guard and the Texas Military Department,” said Col. Robert Hudnall, Executive Officer, Engineer Group. “They have saved the state almost $700,000 in consulting and labor costs.”

While providing support to other Texas Army National Guard Engineering units when this unit was also tasked to perform special demolition projects at Camp Mabry in Austin, Texas, these guardsmen led the demolition of Building 32, the Texas State Guard Headquarters. As well as the preservation of the building’s historic architectural support and roof beams during the renovation phase, they also conducted the exterior demolition, remediation, compaction and backfill of the 15-foot sign in front of Building 34 and are assisting with the layout and construction of a new Camp Mabry soccer field.

For the Engineer Group, mission readiness during a disaster, such as flooding, hurricanes, and tornadoes, is to provide augmentation, in a surge capacity, for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.  Last year, Hurricane Harvey demonstrated just how critical the engineer group was to disaster response. With flooding and high winds damaging hundreds of water and sewage systems, forcing residents to boil drinking water and swamping sewer systems, the primary tasks for the unit were to assess water and wastewater facilities to determine what should be done to get services back online and helping residents to begin to recover from the disaster. As a supporting agency, the Texas State Guard engineers worked in coordination with the commission and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, traveling to the devastated areas to conduct visual assessments of water and wastewater facilities.

The guardsmen also provided professional advice on the restoration of water and waste water systems to municipalities and Councils of Government. In this way, local governments could begin planning timelines for the restoration of drinking water to residents. These assessments would also assist Texas in securing emergency assistance to recover the damaged or inoperable systems.

In Rockport, Texas, the engineers assessed the condition of a water tower that had sustained a broken a cross support arm from high winds during the hurricane. Without the cross support, the tower would, at some point, begin to spin and collapse. The engineers concluded that the condition of the tower was a serious risk to residents and the local municipality took the tower out of service.

“We want to be there when Texans need our engineering expertise following a disaster,” said Lt. Col. Thomas Loftis, Operations Officer, Engineer Group, Texas State Guard. “We can help them and their communities to regain some normalcy with essential water and wastewater service. We want to make sure that each resident can turn on a faucet at home and drink a glass of good, clean water. That is why we serve in the Engineer Group of the Texas State Guard.”

Texas State Guard Fights Rabies One Packet at a Time

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Sgt. Stephen Schaus, 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment, Texas State Guard, reviews the daily flight plan and the amount of bait to be dropped with Staff Sgt. Joel Hernandez, 3rd Battalion, during the aerial rabies vaccine bait distribution over the Zapata-based Border Maintenance Zone during the Oral Rabies Vaccination Program, sponsored by the Texas Department of State Health Services Zoonosis Control Branch, January 10, 2018.    (Texas State Guard photo by Capt. Stephen Walker)

Story by: Chief Warrant Officer Three Janet Schmelzer

Texas State Guard Public Affairs

 

ALPINE, Texas – Six members from the 1st Regiment, Texas State Guard, climbed into the cockpits and rear cabins of Beechcraft aircraft January 10-20, 2018 to support a vital public health and environmental program along the Rio Grande Valley.

Now in its 24th year, the Oral Rabies Vaccination Program is sponsored and run by the Texas Department of State Health Services, Zoonosis Control Branch. In their 15th year assisting with the aerial distribution of the rabies vaccine bait packets, citizen-Guardsmen continue to give back to the Texas communities.

The ORVP is a joint operation of state and federal agencies along with businesses, to control and eradicate the spread of rabies among grey foxes and coyotes with the goal of helping to eliminate the threat of rabies from spreading to humans and domesticated animals. The operation covered 16,400 square miles in three border maintenance zones--Zapata, Del Rio and Alpine. 

This year Guardsmen assisted in distributing more than one million vaccine/baits across a zone covering 19 Texas counties.

“The Texas State Guard, as a force multiplier, was ready to support this vital operation in any way that we could,” said Texas State Guard ORVP mission officer in charge, Capt. Stephen Walker, 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment.  “During this mission we provided manpower as navigators in the cockpit and operated the bait drop distributor in the back of the plane. On the ground we unloaded and loaded bait from delivery trucks onto aircraft and cleaned hangers and debris from the flight line.”

The navigators, who serve as the “eyes in the sky,” monitor the GPS system for correct flight alignment as well as control and monitor the amount of bait distributed. Additionally, they are responsible for warning the pilot of radio towers, birds and other aircraft, and maintaining a comprehensive flight log.

The bait distributors funnel bait into the bait counters and the aerial distributors, while also helping to load and unload plastic bags of bait, clean hangers, keep the area clear of debris, assist ground crews and maintain a safety zone around aircraft.

“We do any task from throwing out trash, cleaning toilets, moving equipment, policing runways and preparing baits for loading,” said Staff Sgt. Joel Hernandez, 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment, who operated a bait distribution equipment in drop zones.

According to statistics from the Department of State Health Services, the program has been successful in controlling the spread of rabies since its inception in 1995. Not a single case of domestic dog/coyote variant rabies in South Texas has been recorded since 2005 or of the Texas Fox variant rabies in West-Central Texas since 2014. No human cases of the coyote and gray fox rabies virus have been reported since the program began.

“We are proud to be part of a program that helps to prevent the spread of rabies and as a result contributes to savings in health care costs as fewer humans are exposed to rabies,” said Walker. “This impacts the environment and the economy in a positive way and reduces the exposure of livestock and wildlife to rabid animals.”

Guardsmen joined forces with partnering agencies to undergo the necessary training for a successful mission. Dr. Ronald Tyler, DSHS Public Health Region 11 Zoonosis Control Branch veterinarian and Angel Guevara, Public Health Specialist conducted training on the safe handling of the rabies vaccine/bait packets.

“It is very important for us to understand the proper way to handle baits.  We wear gloves and tight-fitting clothing so that our skin is not exposed to the vaccine.  We stay hydrated while flying, just as we would do if we were on a mission on the ground.  Drinking water also helps us to avoid air sickness from the very smelly fish meal that covers the packets,” said Hernandez.

For Pfc. Kevin Stepherson, 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment, the importance of ORVP and stopping the spread of rabies is clear.

“There is no doubt in my mind that this program saves people’s lives.  That is why I am here and why I am proud member of the Texas State Guard,” he said.

The Texas Oral Rabies Vaccination Program utilizes the services of such local, state and federal agencies and businesses such as the Texas Department of State Health Services, Texas Cooperative Extension Wildlife Services, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, Texas Military Department, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dynamic Aviation Group, Inc. and the U.S. Army Veterinary Laboratory in Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio.