“People first:” Michigan National Guard innovates opportunities, services for Soldiers, Airmen and families

Story by Capt. Andrew Layton

Michigan National Guard

LANSING, Mich. – The Michigan National Guard has a strategy that puts its people first.

As part of the Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, the MING nests under the department’s unifying concept to consider its people “members for life.” This vision begins with engaging and educating Michigan’s youth for future success and providing opportunities to serve their country in the Michigan National Guard while remaining in their community.

The most recent example of a program that innovates new inroads toward an environment of inclusion, development, and empowerment within the MING is a virtual leadership empowerment event held for the first time Aug. 29. Its aim is to provide a forum to discuss topics surrounding minorities and underrepresented communities within the organization. “

We felt it was important that the Michigan National Guard lead by example and embrace diversity and inclusion,” said Col. Lavetta Bennett, Chief of Staff, Michigan Army National Guard. “We felt this is what courageous, compassionate leaders do on a daily basis, and we wanted to offer a forum to discuss issues like race, gender, and issues that are important to our LGBTQ community.”

The targeted end state for the forum is for leaders to achieve an increased appreciation and acceptance of diversity that contributes to enhanced mission readiness within the Michigan National Guard. A total of 131 leaders participated in the Saturday event. As an immediate result, the MING has begun an initiative to review and improve its transgender policies. The next event is planned for November, to continue the focus on deliberately developing members with diversity and inclusion at the forefront.

This initiative is only one of the Michigan National Guard’s catalogue of people-focused initiatives that have gained national recognition for their quality and innovation in providing exceptional service to Guard members and their families. These programs are unique in that they have been developed at the grassroots level, by Soldiers and Airmen themselves.

“Success begins with growing people’s potential by giving them incredible opportunities,” said U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Paul Rogers, Adjutant General and Director of the Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. “Together, the people of our organization have excelled at doing just that; these programs are all separate and distinct, with a common thread as an investment in people.”

Strong Bonds

Strong Bonds is a unit-based, chaplain-led program, which assists commanders in building individual resiliency by strengthening the Army family. The core mission of Strong Bonds is to increase individual Soldier and Family readiness through relationship education and skills training. Though Strong Bonds is a national program utilized by all components of the U.S. Army and Air National Guard, the work of Michigan National Guard chaplains recently gained attention from the National Guard Bureau as a participant in the Warrior Resilience and Fitness Innovation Incubator Fiscal Year 20 pilot program.

“The Michigan National Guard Strong Bonds program exists to ensure that our men and women in uniform have the tools needed for healthy relationships,” said U.S. Army Maj. Paul Lepley, Michigan Army National Guard chaplain. “Using the best practices in the field of couple relationship education, combined with our firsthand expertise and forward thinking is what has made the Michigan National Guard Strong Bonds program one of the most innovative in the nation.”

Michigan National Guard State Tuition Assistance Program

The Michigan National Guard State Tuition Assistance Program (MINGSTAP) was established in 2014 to provide tuition assistance to members of the Michigan National Guard who are attending any public or private college, university, or vocational school, technical school, or trade school located in Michigan. The MINGSTAP grants students $600 per credit hour or $6,000 per year.

U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Clifford Mua, a KC-135 pilot trainee with the 171st Air Refueling Squadron, Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Mich., says the MINGSTAP has helped him achieve his dream of becoming an officer in the United States military. Mua, who was born in Cameroon, came to Michigan in 2013 to further his education.

Enrolling at Eastern Michigan University, Mua was able to pursue a degree in aviation science, graduating in 2019. This opened the door for him to be selected as a KC-135 pilot candidate

“If you’re in the Michigan National Guard, I believe it’s the state’s way of saying thank you for your service, because we raise our right hand and volunteer to serve whenever and however we are called,” said Mua. “Members should take advantage of this opportunity to develop yourself.”

Mua was commissioned at the Air Force’s Officer Training School in December 2019, fully crediting the MINGSTAP for paving the way toward his goal.

“Flying school is expensive, so if the MINGSTAP hadn’t paid for my flying fees, I probably wouldn’t have had the hours I needed to graduate and become selected to be a pilot at Selfridge Air National Guard Base,” he said.

A Michigan National Guard member can complete an online application and have tuition paid directly to his or her school. As Mua’s case shows, the program can be utilized to meld a guard member’s personal goals with organizational needs – a true investment in the people and mission of the Michigan National Guard.

General Technical Improvement Course (GTIC)

The General Technical Improvement Course (GTIC) is a program innovated by U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 John Laliberte of the Michigan National Guard as a method to help service members better their general technical score within the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test (ASVAB) and in turn, provide additional options for career progression and assignments.

Although similar to the Army’s Functional Academic Skills Training (FAST) program, GTIC’ss unique name identifies its primary purpose.

“General technical (GT) is the subcomponent of the ASVAB the military uses to distinguish between Officer Candidate School (OCS) or enlisted,” said Laliberte. “Soldiers need a GT score of 110 or higher to become an officer.”

Overall, the GTIC is creating immediate and tangible results that highlight the success of this opportunity. Prior to full implementation for fiscal year 2020, the program underwent a 12-month pilot program with positive results.

“Soldiers have an average increased score of 13 points on the general technical component of the ASVAB,” said Laliberte. “The impact is significant as Soldiers who want to join the commissioned officer ranks will now have the opportunity to attend OCS.”

Junior Enlisted Conference

From April 24-26, 2019, the Michigan National Guard held its first Joint Junior Enlisted Conference at Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, Mich. The conference, geared toward National Guard members ranks E1- E6, featured mentorship in topics such as leadership and military dynamics, to health and emotional intelligence from a variety of experienced enlisted leaders including Command Sgt. Maj. Christopher Kepner, Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chief of the National Guard Bureau.

“I have faith in our enlisted corps,” Kepner said. “And I would tell all of you that, as you move up in your career, to never forget that you are enlisted and always be proud that you are enlisted. Never let anyone take that away from you. You might be talking a little bigger, broader, but you still have that opportunity to influence.”

Two similar events have been held in the past by the Michigan Air National Guard, the first in 2016 for E1-E6 and the second in 2018 for senior noncommissioned officers.

“Bringing the Army in, I’ve seen a lot of networking with Army and Air, which is amazing,” said Michigan Air National Guard Chief Master Sgt. Jenny Balabuch, Command Chief for the 110th Wing, Battle Creek Air National Guard Base, organizer of the previous two conferences. “You just don’t get that on an everyday basis.”

StayGuard

The StayGuard program was established to motivate Soldiers nearing the end of their term of enlistment to continue their service in the guard by offering fresh opportunities and incentives. At a StayGuard assembly, Soldiers have the ability to make decisions with the assistance of recruiters that will help them reach their full potential by switching units or career fields. Soldiers also have the ability to talk to retention non-commissioned officers about extending, bonuses, or student loan repayment issues.

Personnel and operations specialists are also on hand at StayGuard assemblies to help produce orders and find new school seats for training.

“During the StayGuard Assembly, Soldiers will hear briefs about the MIARNG including retirement benefits and potential bonuses; they also hear briefs from units from all around the state about their capabilities and openings they may have,” said Sergeant 1st Class Joel Burkhart, Michigan Army National Guard marketing non-commissioned officer-in-charge. “During the last year we have had around a 30% success rate with Soldiers who come to the event actually extending – and families are welcome and encouraged to come as well, which makes it an even more positive opportunity to make informed decisions that will benefit a Soldier’s future.”

Recruiting and retention specialists from the Michigan Air National Guard have recently developed their own StayGuard program to benefit Airmen in a similar fashion.

Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency

Completing the “member for life” cycle in the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs is the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency. The MVAA serves as the central coordinating agency that provides support, care, advocacy, and service to veterans and their families as they transition through life. The agency works to identify and remove barriers veterans face in employment, education, health care, and quality of life. This makes Michigan a desirable place for veterans and their families to call home.

“By establishing seamless partnerships, the MVAA enables a clearly defined network of support ready to assist veterans and their families in an integrated manner,” said Zaneta Adams, Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency director. “This extends to work with non-profits, employers, educational institutions, veteran service organizations, Veteran Community Action Teams (VCATs) and more – by working at the community, local, state, and federal level, MVAA coordinates a full wrap-around of services.”

With these programs, and others, available for the benefit of Michigan National Guard members, Rogers says he believes the state offers a “land of opportunity” for advancing readiness and serving Soldiers, Airmen, and their families.

“We are truly a people-first organization,” he said. “If you don’t believe us, I invite you to come to Michigan to find out for yourself.”

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