By John Toler
WARRENTON, Va. -- After serving in a Virginia Army National Guard combat engineer unit for 19 years- including a one year tour in Iraq – Sgt. First Class Charles W. Griffiths, 37, decided to accept the challenge of becoming a full-time active duty Army National Guard recruiter, based in Warrenton.
As a platoon sergeant and operations sergeant in Iraq, he fought insurgents and suicide bombers. Back home as a recruiter for the organization he proudly represents, his major adversaries are outdated notions about the National Guard and its current mission.
A resident of Caroline County, the married father of two operates out of his office in the Harvey L. Pearson Armory across from Fauquier High School. But he is also seen at local activities like the Gold Cup, Father's Day Car Show, and Fauquier County Fair, usually with his government issue M998 High Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle (Humvee), a real attention-getter.
Although Virginia's "Home Guard" has a long and illustrious history, Griffiths' main task as a recruiter is to get the message across to young men and women considering serving in the military that today's Army National Guard may be right for them. And the days of the ill-equipped and ill-prepared “Weekend Warrior” are long past.
"Today’s National Guard is not your father's, or your grandfather's National Guard," says Griffiths. "I fight that misperception every day ... I come across people who say, 'Oh, you're just the National Guard," Griffiths remarked. "That comment comes from the way the National Guard was perceived in the 1960s and 1970s. It has become a much more professional organization."
Gone are the days when Guard units had to deal with obsolete hand-me-down equipment, shortages of fuel and ammunition, inadequate training, and lack of motivation in the ranks. Perhaps forever.
Indeed, as senior Defense Department planners are relying more and more on National Guard and Reserve elements for overseas missions - like the peacekeeping force in Kosovo, and the War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan - Guardsmen have had to become more proficient and better prepared for serious combat deployments. And even more recently, Virginia Guardsmen have answered the call to assist the Border Patrol in Texas and Arizona.
"We have to be able to stand one of our soldiers next to an active duty soldier, and not be able to tell the difference," said Griffiths.
Reaching this point has not been easy, and it didn't happen over night. "The standards were always there, but they are being enforced much better now than they were 18 or 19 years ago, when I joined the Guard," said Griffiths. In addition, National Guard units have received the latest equipment and training in order to make the transition from citizen-soldier to active duty warrior as seamless as possible.
Working in the Warrenton recruiting office with SFC Griffiths is Spc. Charles Ezzell, 22, of Marshall, a member of Co. B, 3rd Bn, 116th Infantry, in the Detachment based in Warrenton. He was with the unit during their yearlong deployment in Afghanistan in 2004-05, serving as a turret machine gunner.
"The active duty soldier has 30 days a month to attain the standards, but we have only two days a month, Ezzell noted. Griffiths agreed.
"In the National Guard, there's nobody there to hold your hand, to make you do what you're supposed to do to meet the Army standards, in terms of physical fitness, personal appearance, and trained-up levels," he added. "In my opinion, the readiness level in the National Guard is as high as it's ever been. It has become a more professional organization."
In the final analysis, the Virginia National Guard still has two roles: as the state military force, under the governor as commander-in-chief, and when "activated," its federal role, when it becomes part of the Regular Army, and goes to war. In addition to his year in Iraq, Griffiths has gone on four in-state activations, all in response to weather-related catastrophes.
When talking with potential recruits, Griffiths is clear about the possibility of deployment and the "seamless" transition from National Guardsman to combat soldier that is critical to any mission. "When you are called up, you go, and you do your job," he explains. And of course there is always the risk of being wounded or killed while on deployment. Two members of the 276th were killed and four wounded in Iraq while at Forward Operating Base Marez, near Mosul, on December 21, 2004 when a suicide bomber attacked their mess tent; and two members of Ezell's battalion were killed Aug. 7, 2004 by a command-detonated roadside bomb in Ghanzi Province, Afghanistan.
Filling the ranks
The change to the all-volunteer military over 30 years ago has had a noticeable effect on the National Guard as well, since much more is expected of its soldiers than ever before. No longer do recruiters like Griffiths push to fill "quotas," or even encourage the marginally qualified to join. "Frankly, it's just not that easy to get into the military now," he added. And if he thinks that a potential recruit would be happier full-time active duty, he tells him so.
"If you (as a recruiter) do the job you're supposed to do, you'll succeed," said Griffiths. "Sometimes it's easy, sometimes it's not.
Attracting the best recruits for the National Guard has been made easier by a range of programs, including signing bonuses, flexible enlistment options and delayed entry programs, active duty benefits, and support for higher education.
To SFC Griffiths, the state-paid educational support is one of the most important benefits he has used during his military career.
“The National Guard has been there for me when I needed it,” he said. “It paid for my associate degree, and the bachelor’s degree I’m working on now.”
In addition, there are programs from helping young soldiers get their GED diplomas, to college students who want to earn an officer’s commission in the National Guard through the school’s ROTC program.
Griffiths stresses that like most of the benefits available to Guardsmen, the educational support.
“For me, the National Guard was an open door,” said Griffiths, who joined the Guard while in high school, and had various civilian jobs before going full-time. “If you can get in, it will open many more doors for you.”
Brian K. Cook, 17, of Marshall is typical of the kind of person Griffiths is looking for to recruit: mature, motivated, and ready to serve.
A rising senior at Fauquier High School, Cook had planned to serve in the military since he was a young boy. He admired his grandfather, Russell Teel, also of Marshall, who was a veteran of World War II and the Korean War.
Cook began to pursue his goal when he enrolled in the Junior ROTC program at Liberty High School in Bealeton, where he was an outstanding member of the Eagle Battalion.
Talking with SFC Griffiths at the recruiting office at the Harvey L. Pearson Armory and seeing him at several community outreach activities, Cook learned what would be expected of him in the National Guard, and what the rewards - and benefits - would be. Of particular interest was the assistance the Guard offered for his college education. He was also impressed with his recruiter's straight answers and personal commitment to the Guard.
After about three months, he made his decision. "I figured that this was an opportunity for me to get good experience in life, and get an education," he recalled.
When Cook told his parents, Donald and Patricia Wright, about his plans, they were pleased with his decision to serve in the Guard, and excited that his enlistment would lead to a college education. They were less excited about the possibility of an overseas deployment - now a real possibility for most Guardsmen - but signed the paperwork to get their 17-year-old into the Virginia Army National Guard.
Cook's enlistment runs eight years, and since he is still in high school, he will serve under the Recruit Sustainment Program, participating in the monthly drills with the Guard company in Leesburg until he reports for active duty training at Fort Benning, Georgia, on June 19, 2007.
Following his basic and advanced Infantry training, he will enter Fort Benning's Airborne school, and qualify as a paratrooper. Because of his JROTC training, Cook is already a Private First Class (E-3).
And what about he possibility of a deployment after he returns to his unit? The answer is simple: "If you are called, you go."
Next week, Sfc. Griffiths will not be in the area, scouting for young men and women who would be a good fit for the Army National Guard, as he will be in Arkansas at a recruiter’s school.
While there, he will learn even more ways to convey the message about today’s Army National Guard – the important mission, the opportunities, and the responsibilities for those who wish to become part of the “brotherhood of the military” in which he proudly serves.