For immediate release:
Jan. 15, 2009
Contact: CW2 Patrick Daugherty
FORT INDIANTOWN GAP, Pa. - On a recent morning, Hamburg Schools Superintendent Steven Engravalle and School Board Member Dawn O'Grady climbed out of a New Jersey Army National Guard helicopter and onto a windswept airfield here. Their mission: to see special education teacher Suzanne Williamson at her "other job."
In that other job, she's known as Capt. Suzanne Williamson, the commander of Echo Company, 1-150th Assault Helicopter Battalion. And by early Spring, that job will take her to Iraq, a half a world away from her classroom in Hamburg.
When O'Grady and Engravalle caught up to Williamson, she was leading the 50 Soldiers in her command to target practice on a rifle range. Williamson stopped in her tracks when she saw her bosses.
"I can't believe you came all the way up here to see me," she said.
O'Grady and Engravalle were among a half-dozen employers who boarded UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters in Lawrenceville on Jan. 9 and made the 45-minute flight to Central Pennsylvania to observe their employees training The roughly 250 Soldiers from the unit, which flies helicopters, will deploy to Iraq this Spring for about 10 months. Before they leave, they'll spend about two months training at Fort Sill, Okla.
The trip was what's known as a "Boss Lift" and it was sponsored by the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR), a Department of Defense organization that protects the employment rights of military reservists. One of the ways it does this is by making sure bosses know what it is their people do when they get called to military duty - whether it's to train at a military base in Pennsylvania or to deploy to war in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Before the employers boarded the helicopters, Maj. Gen. Glenn K. Rieth, the state adjutant general, told them that by supporting their employees, they are making a direct contribution to the state and nation's defense.
That's because nearly half of the combat strength of the U.S. military is in the reserves, which includes the National Guard. And unlike the other reserve components, the National Guard can also be activated by the governor in state emergencies.
"The nation and our state are asking a lot of our citizen soldiers," Rieth said. For example, two-thirds of the soldiers in the aviation battalion have served in Iraq at least once before. And another group of more than 2,800 New Jersey Army Guard Soldiers from the 50th Infantry Brigade Combat Team just passed the mid-way point of their 10-month mission in Iraq. By this Spring, no state will have a greater percentage of its Army National Guard force serving in Iraq than New Jersey, which has a total of 6,000 Soldiers.
For Williamson, 41, it will be her second time in the Middle East. She served as an active-duty enlisted soldier during the Persian Gulf War.
"I'm going back there with a whole new perspective," Williamson said. "I'm looking forward to going, but I'm going to miss the kids I teach."
The students will miss Williamson as well, Engravalle said.
"We'll all miss her when she's deployed," he said. "If every employee was as good as her, life would be easy for me. She's smart, she's in shape, and she's the first one in and the last one out every day."
Engravalle said the trip to Fort Indiantown Gap gave him a better understanding of what Williamson does when she's away from school.
"It gives me an incredible empathy to what she and all of the soldiers go through," he said. "And it makes me proud of her. She's one of that 1 percent that serves to keep the other 99 percent of us safe."