Ric Bobier, Hells Canyon Complex manager for Idaho Power in Oxbow, sits atop an armored vehicle and sights down the barrel of a machine gun during last weekendís Bosslift. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH / The Observer
Two-day outing to Boise educates employers about challenges their National Guard citizen-soldiers face
An Army National Guard Sherpa C-23 took flight from Salem last Friday, touching down briefly in Portland, The Dalles and La Grande on its way to Boise, Idaho.
At each stop, the boxy-looking little plane picked up a few more civilians, whisking them away on Operation Bosslift, the annual event organized especially for business people who employ National Guard or Reserve soldiers.
At the Union County Airport, a group of six boarded the prop-driven aircraft for the 40-minute hop to Gowen Field in Boise. The flight was uneventful, though bouncy at times.
Sandi Fuller, the human resources director at Marvin Wood Products in Baker City, said she went out of her way to experience it.
Though she works in Baker City, she makes her home in Weiser, Idaho. It would have been easy for her to drive home to Weiser Friday and on to Boise Saturday morning, but she’s an adventurous sort and wanted that taste of military flight.
“It was just something I felt like I had to try,” Fuller said, once her feet were back on the ground.
Manned mostly by volunteers, the ESGR is a Department of Defense organization working to foster good relations between National Guard and Reserve soldiers and their civilian-side employers. Bosslift is ESGR’s way of giving the employers an up-close look at the challenges their citizen-soldier employees face.
“The purpose is to show the bosses what their employees do when they’re away, and how their military service makes them better employees,” said Jack Johnson, ESGR’s Area 6 chair.
The La Grande contingent led by Johnson included Fuller, Steve Lyon of Boise Cascade in La Grande, Wes Faulk, a Gem Stop fuel distributor from Summerville, La Grande dentist Dr. James McMahan, and Ric Bobier, Idaho Power’s Hells Canyon Complex manager based at Oxbow in Baker County.
After drawing billets Friday afternoon, they gathered with the other Oregon employers at the Gowen Field officer’s club for dinner and a talk by Col. Don Blunck, commander of the Idaho National Guard’s 116th Brigade Combat Team. The 116th, headquartered in Boise, consists of units from Idaho, Montana and Oregon. The team’s Third Battalion is based in La Grande and includes elements from communities all along the Snake River corridor.
Blunck talked about the unit’s two deployments in Iraq, sayiwg the missions were dangerous and demanding and required a high degree of training. He praised employers for making sure the citizen-soldier employees had enough time off from their jobs to learn the skills needed to survive.
Bosslift participants get a look at a terrain model thatís used to build battle scenarios in classes at the 1-204th Regional Training Institute at Gowen Field in Boise.
“Employer support is vital to the success of a Guardsman,” Blunck said. “You helped ensure they got the training prior to mobilization and I can tell you that it saved lives.”
Blunck said that during the combat team’s first tour in Iraq in 2004-05, one task was to assist with security for the country’s first-ever democratic elections. He said it was a perilous time, but soldiers performed above expectations.
“Daily there were attacks against election sites and U.S. bases,” Blunck said. “Daily we had tanks on the streets and the reason the soldiers did so well was their training.” The colonel noted that IED attacks were frequent throughout the tour, but no 116th BCT soldier died as a result.
In 2011, the unit re-deployed to Iraq in support of Operation New Dawn. Blunck said Oregon’s Third Battalion was assigned convoy security duty, and distinguished itself in many ways.
“The Oregon soldier did convoy duty from Baghdad north. They were on every highway in the north, and again, not a single casualty. All of that relates back to you as employers and the sacrifices you make,” he said.
Looking ahead, Blunck said that under the U.S. Army’s Force Generation Training Model, the 116th is in a reset mode now but is required to be deployment-ready by 2016. He said the unit is being issued the latest models of Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and that training will become more complex each year of the cycle.
In 2016, the brigade could be called upon to deploy overseas again, or undergo a rigorous training cycle at the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, Calif. Blunck said that with downsizing in the regular Army, a deployment wouldn’t surprise him.
“I think there’s a perception that things have slowed down, but today I don’t think that’s true. The Army’s going to be relying as much on the Guard as they have in the past,” he said.
Employers from Idaho joined those from Oregon on Saturday, swelling the number of Bosslift participants to more than 100.
The day started with a breakfast and talk by Col. Robert Lytle, chief of staff of the Idaho National Guard. Lytle said the fact that the 116th is being issued state-of-the-art warfighting gear is a tribute to the unit’s recent record in battle.
Like Blunck, Lytle said employers of 116th BCT soldiers share in the credit for the unit’s success.
“We feel the nation has recognized and rewarded us as a region. We want you to understand we’re extremely grateful for your support. We understand what it costs to let your service member go for two weeks or a year,” he said.
With breakfast done, the Bosslift broke into smaller groups and boarded busses for stations throughout Gowen Field, which is a training base for the Army and Air National Guard, the Marines and the Navy.
Uniformed young men and women designated as “wranglers” shepherded the groups to static displays that showed off military equipment including tanks and fighting vehicles, small arms, and plenty more. Bosslift participants were treated to behind-the-scenes glimpses of state-of-the-art training facilities, including the 1-204th Regional Training Institute that prepares soldiers from throughout the United States for duty in the armored component.
In the way of hands-on activities, the civilians experienced dizzying flight — or something very close to it — in the Air National Guard’s A-10 jet simulator. At an indoor training range, they took up M-4 carbines and M-16 rifles and engaged enemy forces in a virtual firefight.
At still another high-tech, computer-guided training station, they assumed the roles of drivers and gunners in a convoy moving through territory resembling the hostile streets of Baghdad. They did their best to dodge virtual hazards including artillery rounds, small arms fire, and improvised explosive devices planted in the roadways.
As the day wound down, Bosslift participants came together again for some closing remarks and the annual ESGR awards ceremony.
Lyon accepted an ESGR Seven Seals Award on behalf of Boise Cascade. The honor recognized the company’s participation in the Employment Initiative Program mounted by ESGR, Worksource Oregon, the National Guard and local employers during the 2011 deployment. Boise Cascade was singled out for its special effort to employ Third Battalion soldiers who took part in Operation New Dawn.
Accepting the award, Lyon said Boise Cascade is a large company providing jobs for about 600 people in northeast Oregon and can easily deal with the periodic absences of National Guard soldiers. He said the company is proud to have those soldiers aboard.
“It’s part of our culture, part of what we do,” he said.
At the end of the hectic day, the 20 or so Oregonians broke off from the main body and re-boarded the Sherpa for the return trip. La Grande was the first stop on the way back. The folks dropped off there all said they had a wonderful time.
Faulk, whose roster of 40 Gem Stop employees currently includes two National Guard soldiers, has participated in previous Bosslifts. He said they are always worthwhile experiences, and he jumps at the chance to go.
“I think it’s a great thing to come out and show these guys that we support them,” he said.
He added that he has found that Guard soldiers make excellent workers on the civilian side.
“I hire them the second I get the chance and I think everybody should. I don’t think it’s a sacrifice. It’s a little bit of an inconvenience, but it’s well worth it. I’m just glad they’re there,” he said.
McMahan has not had occasion to hire service members for his La Grande dental practice, but he is involved in the effort to keep the Third Battalion combat-ready since he does pre-deployment dental exams for soldiers in the unit.
“They have to be dentally fit and it’s my job to certify that they won’t have a problem for a year,” he said.
This year’s Bosslift was a first for McMahan. He said he accepted the invitation to go because he’d heard from others that it is a “fantastic” experience.
“I’m very supportive of the Guard and I wanted to see how it works,” he said.
McMahan said his experience in the flight simulator Saturday was especially memorable.
“It humbled me to see how difficult the things they do really are, and how highly skilled they are,” he said.
Bobier said his company employs a number of National Guard soldiers, workers who nominated him to go along on the Bosslift. He said he he was happy to take part.
“It was very interesting, and I’m very impressed,” he said.
Fuller only recently stepped in as human resources director at Marvin Wood Products, a company that has often employed National Guard soldiers. She said she came along on Bosslift because she’d heard good things about it from her predecessor in the job.
She said her Bosslift experience was a memorable one. The thing that left her most impressed was the military order and discipline, the sense of efficiency reflected in the cleanliness of the facilities.
There was something reassuring about it.
“In their armor maintenance training site, not so much as a spot of grease,” Fuller said. “If that’s the they way operate their shop, it’s also the way they protect their country.”