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NEWS | June 1, 2021

Michigan Air Guard member follows path to England

By Capt. Andrew Layton, Michigan National Guard

RAF MOLESWORTH, England – With four stars on his shoulder, he was the highest-ranking officer U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Sydney Suwannarat had ever seen. The staff was called to attention, the room fell silent and he approached where she and two other junior enlisted colleagues were standing at the front of the room.

“Whatcha got,” he asked.

Suwannarat, without missing a beat, delivered a concisely prepared brief about her division’s processes and function at Joint Intelligence Operations Center, Europe (JIOCEUR) Analysis Center Molesworth, where she has served since late 2019 from her home station assignment with the 110th Wing at Battle Creek Air National Guard Base, Michigan.

“I don’t think I took a breath the entire week after I found out I was going to brief,” she explains. “Honestly he was very open and friendly with everyone. He listened carefully to what we briefed and offered questions and commentary for each one of us that was just like having a conversation.”

After the visit to JAC Molesworth by the commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe – Air Forces Africa – the military officer responsible for air and missile defense of 29 NATO alliance member nations while commanding U.S. airpower across more than 19 million square miles – Suwannarat can now say she has briefed a four-star general – a rare occasion in the career of any intelligence analyst, let alone one from the Air National Guard.

Then again, there are many unique things about Suwannarat’s career leading up to that moment.

“I’m not the typical person to join the military,” she says.

Before enlisting at the age of 37, Suwannarat had been involved with competitive dog sports her whole life. For nearly 20 years, she worked for the American Kennel Club in Raleigh, N.C., and the United Kennel Club in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the two largest purebred dog registries in the United States. She had scarcely given the idea of military service a second thought until completing her degree in conservation biology – while working full-time – from North Carolina State University.

After about five years of payments on student loans, Suwannarat realized she needed to change course to keep making headway against the financial mountain she was climbing. Her cousin was talking about joining the Navy Reserves, and Suwannarat felt a growing inspiration: she decided to look into her own options for service.

“I had relocated to Michigan because of my civilian job, and the 110th Wing just happens to be about 15 miles from my house,” she says. “So into the recruiting office I went.”

Suwannarat became an intelligence specialist with the Michigan Air National Guard’s 217th Air Operations Group, a component of the 110th Wing also based at Battle Creek with a rare mission to provide reserve-component augmentation for USAFE-AFAFRICA when called upon.

USAFE-AFAFRICA is the air component for both U.S. European Command and U.S. Africa Command, enabling global operations with forward-based airpower and infrastructure.

After serving four years as a traditional drill-status Guard member, things changed in 2019 when Suwannarat’s husband got a job in England as a civilian with the Defense Logistics Agency. Being a 1N0 all-source intelligence analyst with the 110 WG made it possible for Suwannarat to follow him there. Before she knew it, she was working at JAC Molesworth, where military information from a variety of sources is processed and analyzed for the benefit of the United States and NATO.

“My role specifically is to organize and format the analysts’ sources and confirm the information on the USEUCOM morning update brief and to prevent security violations or accidental spillage,” she explains. “My second function is to distribute the finished intel products and the daily morning update brief to the wider intel community.”

In all her responsibilities, Suwannarat is excelling. In the weeks surrounding the USAFE-AFAFRICA commander’s visit, she received two challenge coins for her professionalism; one from the senior enlisted advisor at JAC Molesworth and another from the director of intelligence for U.S. European Command. She credits her life experience and versatility – both common characteristics of ANG members – as a professional edge.

“Working with active duty and reservists both, I haven’t really been able to tell the difference,” she says. “Being a traditional Guard member up until now, I have been able to bring some of my civilian work experience to the job that I think provides a different perspective when approaching duties or problems that arise.”

A year into her assignment at JAC Molesworth, Suwannarat says her time in uniform has delivered opportunities she never dreamed of, even while serving as a part-time Guard member in Michigan. She and her husband plan to remain overseas at least through 2022.

“I joined the Guard to pay off my student loans (which I did),” she says, “but I have stayed because it really opened up a whole new world of opportunity for me.”