From 1,500 feet above Scott County and strapped into a seat on a Chinook CH-47F helicopter, a group of Quad-City employers got an up-close and personal view of the work their employees do when called to duty as citizen soldiers with the guard and reserve.
More than 40 employers and community leaders had the rare opportunity Thursday to fly with the Iowa National Guard. The experience was part of a Center of Influence event at the Davenport Army Aviation Support Facility hosted by the Iowa National Guard and Employer Support for the Guard and Reserve, or ESGR.
"I was going to chicken out," said Mary Essman, the member community relations business partner with HON, Muscatine. "I didn't sign the (release) paper right away. I was nervous."
But minutes after taking her first Chinook helicopter ride, she had a different tune. "That was awesome," she said. "When you're in it and up there, there's not a whole lot between you and what's going on."
While the 20-minute flight clearly was the event highlight, the employers also got schooled on the Guard's role in the military and in local communities. As they got to see various weapons and equipment up close, they also were learning more about the resources the ESGR offers employers who have citizen soldiers working for them.
"We've learned a ton about military veterans and how to support them," said Lainie Cooney, an assistant vice president of Hy-Vee, West Des Moines. With stores in eight states, she said there is a strong military presence in Hy-Vee's workforce. "We're looking to recruit and hire more military for our organization."
But this event was about understanding what those employees go through on their monthly weekend and yearly two-week trainings.
U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Mitchell Brush, the senior enlisted adviser for the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C., was on hand to show his appreciation for the employers who support the guard's mission.
In the war fight, he said "They wear the same uniform (as regular military). When we get in the theater we are identical."
But fighting a war is only part of their role today, he said. "Reliance on the guard is going through the roof."
Citizen soldiers, who during the week hold down regular civilian jobs, are the people who are brought in when state governors come calling in time of natural disasters or violent situations, such as the riots occurring now in Charlotte, North Carolina.
"I need them to work for you," Brush told the employers. "The things you're teaching these young men and women, I need you to do ..."
According to Brush, the guard has not done a good job of telling its story. "The guard is the community. We live here, we are you,'' he said.
Today's National Guard is made up of 453,000 citizens, including 348,000 Army National Guard and 105,000 Air National Guard, Brush added.
The Center of Influence event was designed to show employers intense training and that work that their military employees must endure as part of guard duty. Visitors also got a chance to see aircraft, weaponry and equipment such as night-vision goggles to better understand their employees' military life.
"If not for the employers like yourself, it would be impossible for the armed forces to do what we do," said Terry Dell, who became the incoming ESGR area co-chair during the meeting. He and Mike Allbee will share the post after Harry Cockrell retired Thursday after 10 years.
Thanking the group, Cockrell said "No employer has ever said 'no' to any of my people. That speaks highly of Iowa ... You employers are just outstanding."
Among the employers was Chris Bandy, district manager of Farmer's Insurance, Cedar Rapids, who joined his Davenport office manager and Coast Guard member Nick Grant. For Bandy, the experience was eye-opening. "I didn't know these guys train at the same level as active military. I have a new respect for what he (Nick) does."
Bandy, whose offices provide training and support for Farmer's agents, added that they are trying to actively recruit more military members to their operation. "Former military usually get done (serving) in their 40s and are looking for a mid-career profession. We like that."
Despite his military career, Petty Officer 1st Class Grant, of DeWitt, also had his first helicopter ride during the event. "I usually stay on water," he said, adding he loved the ride. "As the old saying goes there's more helicopters in the ocean than boats in the sky."