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By Don Branum
Vermont National Guard Public Affairs
Vermont National Guard senior leaders answered questions related to mental health treatment and education benefits and discussed updates within the Guard during a Facebook Live town hall event Feb. 8.
Maj. Gen. Greg Knight, the state adjutant general, opened the town hall by congratulating the three Vermont Guardsmen currently competing in the Winter 2022 Olympics in Beijing: Spcs. Sean Doherty and Leif Nordgren, as well as Sgt. Deedra Irwin; Spc. Vaclav Cervenka awaits possible competition as the men’s team alternate.
“I’d actually like to really offer special recognition to (Irwin) for her seventh-place finish overall in the women’s 15k individual. That’s significant when you look at the scale of the competition and the number of competitors,” Knight said, adding that Irwin’s finish in the event was the best ever for a U.S. woman biathlete. “Job well done for all of them to even get there, and good luck in the events going forward.”
The virtual town hall also included updates on Soldiers’ return from deployment and a call from Knight for service members who deployed to Southwest Asia to enroll in the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Open-Air and Burn Pit Registry.
Several Vermont Guardsmen have died from illnesses potentially in connection with burn pit exposure, Knight said, including two cases of pancreatic cancer, two cases of metastasized prostate cancer, two cases of brain cancer, and one case of lung cancer. The most recent Soldier to lose his battle with cancer was retired Staff Sgt. Wesley Black, who died Nov. 7, 2021.
Knight also spoke on Black History Month and observed that diversity and inclusion within the ranks makes the U.S. armed forces stronger.
“When I look at the diversity of experience, especially in this job, it’s become apparent to me that good ideas don’t have a gender; they don’t have an ethnicity; they don’t have a rank,” he said. The Joint Diversity Executive Council will hold a Black History Month celebration in the Green Mountain Armory Feb. 17 at 2 p.m.
Knight fielded a question about the process of attaining veteran-approved scholarships by saying that Education Services officers can walk service members through signing up for programs such as the Post-9/11 GI Bill and the Vermont Education Entitlement Program. In response to a concern about better advertisement of family support events, he said he would research how the Guard can better notify service members and their families.
In response to a concern about the stigma surrounding mental health treatment, Knight said the issue remains one of his top concerns.
“From my perspective, our policy, for retention and recruiting, is not keeping up with advances in medical sciences,” Knight said. “It’s a complex problem that we’re trying to get resolved. If we limit deployability, the underlying message is, ‘You’re not fit to serve,’ and that’s a stigma. Policy needs to align to advances in medical sciences.”
Brig. Gen. David Manfredi, the director of joint staff, shared news of units that had returned from year-long deployments, the establishment of a Personnel Support Directorate, and the current status of COVID-19 relief efforts. In addition to continued operations at the Strategic National Stockpile Warehouse and vaccination efforts across the state, approximately 50 Soldiers and Airmen currently support hospitals affected by staffing shortages.
Manfredi added that in 2022 he looks forward to the completion of the new Army Mountain Warfare School in Jericho, as well as the startup of the Vermont National Guard’s state partnership with Austria. It will be the Vermont Guard’s third state partnership, after North Macedonia and Senegal.
Manfredi also answered a question about establishing a recreational vehicle park on Camp Johnson, noting the construction of a new facility for the Personnel Support Directorate would occupy the largest currently open real estate. He said the Vermont Guard would continue to look for good areas to set up an RV park for Guard members, retirees, and family members.
Col. David Shevchik Jr. shared news about the 158th Fighter Wing earning full combat-ready status as the only F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter Wing in the Air National Guard, as well as other accomplishments within the wing. The F-35 Maintenance Hangar Renovation at Burlington Air National Guard Base received a citation award from the Air Force Civil Engineer Center in November, recognizing the renovation for design and efficiency. In addition, the wing’s Environmental Management Team received the Gen. Thomas D. White Environmental Restoration and Installation Award, which recognizes the Air National Guard installation with the best environmental restoration program.
Answering a question about F-35 operations in Burlington, Shevchik said that the Vermont Air National Guard took part in a Defense Department process to determine which location would best host the F-35s, and after receiving this selection, the 158th Fighter Wing must meet its mission requirements.
“We’ve taken the mitigation measures we can that are within our control,” Shevchik said. Details about F-35 noise mitigation and other commonly asked questions are on the Vermont Guard’s F-35 page at www.vtguard.com/f-35.
Knight wrapped up the town hall with a pitch to see the Vermont Guard in action and consider joining.
“We’re hiring,” he said. “Come see us. We have tours coming up here at the wing. We’ve done a couple at the Camp Ethan Allen Training Site out at Jericho. It’s not Area 51. Come see us, and come see what your Guard does for our state, for our local community, and for our nation.”