JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – If I'm being honest, I didn't even know what the National Guard was three years ago.
I was a college sophomore finding my way through a degree in photography at the University of Central Missouri and the only thing I knew about the National Guard was that they had a billboard in the football stadium on campus and they did pushups in the end zone when the team scored a touchdown (I soon learned those weren't even National Guardsmen, but ROTC cadets - a whole different type of confusing).
Fast forward to today and I'm about as involved as a National Guard solider can be without being full-time staff at my unit. Instead of a confused photography student, I now call myself a military photojournalist. I'm pursuing a minor in public relations and I work for the university's ROTC department as the public affairs manager. I jump at every chance I get to take photos of military or veteran events on campus or in the community.
Pfc. Samantha Whitehead works in her office at her civilian job as the public affairs manager for the Military Science and Leadership department of the University of Central Missouri, Warrensburg, Missouri, on Dec. 18, 2015. Whitehead, a member of the 70th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, Missouri National Guard, uses her civilian education to enhance her military career as a public affairs specialist. (U.S. Army photo by Pfc. Samantha J. Whitehead)
But how did all of that change so quickly? How did my job become so intertwined with my education and everyday life? The answer: the opportunities available to Guardsmen. I'm not talking about the G.I. Bill or tuition assistance. I mean the opportunity to see your military career and civilian education run so closely, so parallel to one another that they mesh. That is the power of a Citizen-Soldier.
The beginning of my military career is sort of like the old adage, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” in that I'm not sure if my genuine interests in public affairs or the military sprung up first. All I know is they are both building blocks for the other. And somehow that works for me.
I started working on a public relations minor around the time I had learned about the National Guard from a few close friends. Money for school and a commitment of a weekend a month for a few years didn't sound too bad to me. When I tried to join as a public affairs specialist, my recruiter told me there weren't any positions available, so I agreed to enlist as a satellite technician at an armory close to my home. I wasn't able to enlist right away so the process was temporarily put on hold.
Meanwhile, my first public relations class was a writing and editing course that required students to work with a client throughout the semester. I chose the Missouri National Guard. I still wanted the photographer job and figured I could learn more about the unit I wanted to join through working on projects.
I sent some emails, left a voicemail or two, and within a few days I received a response saying they'd love to work with me for the semester. I first tackled a news release with the help of the military history detachment and a few days after that I got another phone call, this one from a major in the public affairs unit. My emails had gotten passed around and the word was out that I was planning to enlist, but not as a public affairs soldier. Her name was Maj. Spicer, the commander of the 70th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, and she was offering me a job.
This was my first lesson in the National Guard. There are hidden opportunities out there and you'll likely only find them through the network of service members that will help guide you through your career.
Trial by Fire
A few weeks later, I raised my hand and enlisted in the Missouri Army National Guard as a public affairs specialist with the 70th MPAD and went to basic training.
During my advanced individual training at the Defense Information School in Fort Meade, Maryland, the other students called me a cheater because I already knew how to write in the inverted pyramid style and work a camera on manual mode. It was true – I knew how to do these things, but definitely not the Army way. And we all know there's an Army way for everything.
I worked hard and earned distinguished honor graduate award of my class, “cheater” or not. I flew home, awaited my first drill with my unit and starting back up on my college classes in the spring. Little did I know I would be activated for state emergency duty, even before I met anyone from my unit, and stay in that status for a month.
State emergency duty allowed me to use every skill I had learned so far in college and the military. It was real-world, real-life stuff and no one cared if I had learned it from the Army or not. They didn't care that I had that leg up on other soldiers at DINFOS. All they cared about was that I could do my job and I did it really well for a brand new soldier.
This was my second lesson in the National Guard. Your dual experiences in the military and your civilian life will give you an advantage. Others might see that as unfair, but it is up to you to capitalize on it and continue to grow because there will always be someone who will need your skills – and genuinely appreciate it when you can deliver them in a time of need.
The New Normal
After a month on state emergency duty, I returned home and prepared to go back to a normal life of attending college classes and not waking up at 4 a.m. I enrolled in my first crisis communication course and a public relations strategic planning class. In both of those courses we covered things I learned in the Army – how to conduct a press conference, write follow-up news releases during a crisis – and I got called a cheater again because I had an advantage over the other students because of the military.
Through all of this, I grew in the public relations program because of my experience in the Guard and I grew in the Guard because of my experience in school. Two things, that at one time had been so separate they were foreign, were now so perfectly joined together that it was almost like drill weekends were just another college class and classes were just another drill weekend.
No Longer Just “Weekend Warriors”
I understand not every story can be like this. The military cook might not be a restaurant chef in his civilian career, the mechanic might not even like changing the oil in his own car, and the supply sergeant might not even work in an office.
Every Guardsman, however, can take something from that one weekend a month and apply it to his or her civilian life. The platoon sergeant might be stuck in corporate middle management, needing to get ahead of the competition for the next promotion. Military leadership will provide opportunities to develop those needed skills. Even just using the military as a networking tool can be powerful enough to change a path, change a career, or change a life.
If you look close enough, the National Guard can hold powerful opportunities for everyone. I look forward to helping others in the same way I have been helped. The Guard is a family - one that will help you grow beyond what you ever thought possible.
By U.S. Army Pfc. Samantha J. Whitehead
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