A Time of Transition for Nebraska’s National Guard

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November 25th, 2014

Lincoln, NE – After a decade of nearly non-stop overseas deployment, things have changed for Nebraska’s National Guard soldiers. In today’s NET News Signature Story, Mike Tobias reports on this time of transition.

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Dignitaries and a crowd of soldiers in camouflage fatigues fill a media event at a National Guard facility. Since 9/11, ceremonies like this have happened all the time, almost always celebrating a unit leaving or returning from overseas deployment. But this one was different. It was the dedication last May of a sparkling new National Guard readiness building near Mead, the sort of modern facility that’s replacing armories of old as places for soldiers to train.

A Nebraska Army National Guard soldier on patrol in Afghanistan in 2010. (Photo courtesy of NE National Guard)

A Nebraska Army National Guard soldier on patrol in Afghanistan in 2010. (Photo courtesy of NE National Guard)

Watching the ceremony, then putting away folding chairs when it was over, was one of those veterans of the frequent deployment events; Capt. Zach LaBrayere, a full-time Army National Guard soldier from Lincoln who has been overseas three times in recent years, twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan.

“From the personal side it was, for me, it’s pretty awesome to start really thinking five years out,” LaBrayere said. “When you always have another deployment on the horizon, I always found that a little bit challenging. There weren’t too many periods of time when we were home for three years. Now we’re starting to see that.”

For a decade Nebraska National Guard soldiers were deployed almost non-stop to places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Bosnia and Kosovo. Some Army Guard soldiers were going to war multiple times for a year or longer each time. But things have changed. Four years ago, a more than a third of Nebraska’s 3500 Army National Guard troops deployed overseas; right now, just a couple dozen are deployed, with half of these for a domestic border patrol mission. It’s a time of transition.

“The goodness of that is it’s giving us time to catch our breath and reset if you will, and kind of take a break almost,” said Major General Daryl Bohac, adjutant general of the Nebraska National Guard. “I think if you look across, particularly the Army formations, we had some tired soldiers, always willing to go, always wanting to go, people volunteering for multiple deployments, but I think also too a little fatigued out in the communities of constantly units coming and going.”

Bohac says in spite of the demands, the Nebraska National Guard hasn’t had trouble recruiting soldiers and is very close to full strength. But with this transition the sales pitch has changed; broadcast ads talk about joining the Guard to fight floods and wildfires instead enemies abroad. Staff Sgt. Kevin O’Brien, an Army National Guard recruiter in North Platte, said some of the young people he talks to don’t have a vivid recollection of what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, and their motivations for joining the Guard are different than what he saw just a few years ago.

“It seems to have gone in a sense back to pre-9/11 times as far as what the motivations are to enlist,” O’Brien said. “Obviously, the benefits that the Guard offers is a huge motivation for some folks in terms of educational benefits and monies for education. (Also), just a general service or willingness or desire to serve because family history of service to country or they just have that calling to serve because they want to give back. Not necessarily are they eager to or looking for an opportunity to say get in a fight, for lack of a better term.”

The new recruits benefit from having battle-tested veterans to learn from. But keeping training useful and interesting for soldiers who’ve seen the real thing is a challenge, especially when there are fewer resources available when a unit isn’t prepping for deployment.

“They expect to be challenged,” Bohac said. “They’re not going to be happy painting rocks, and I use that as just a term, but I think people would understand that. They want to be practicing in the craft they signed up for, whether it’s a wheeled vehicle mechanic or a flight line air crew chief.”

“I suppose no matter whether you’re active duty or you’re in the Guard, there’s always a challenge in replicating what you see in combat,” LaBrayere added. “But at the same time, who better to do that than those who have seen it, so I think we’re pretty adaptive and creative in how we go about that.”

At a recent training exercise at Camp Ashland, on the Platte River, Nebraska Army Guard soldiers practiced skills like radioing information about a roadside bomb. This was a stressful, tiring 18-hour day, part of a competition to pick the state’s top soldiers. Sgt. 1st Class Jeremy Tiede of Fremont helped run the drills. He’s deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11.

“It’s something that the Army and the Armed Forces always will run into, is how do we keep our people ready in between engagements,” Tiede said. “Training is a very big part of that, and discipline is something we have to maintain. Resilience is another thing that helps us to keep them ready and focused.”

Because no doubt there will come another transition, a time that deployment ceremonies will replace ribbon cuttings for Nebraska citizen soldiers.

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