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NEWS | April 30, 2020

Iowa State grads dominate National Guard COVID-19 task force

By Staff Sgt. Christie Smith Iowa National Guard

JOHNSTON, Iowa – In mid-March, the Iowa National Guard was ramping up its response to COVID-19 when it established Task Force Central at Camp Dodge to direct efforts in some of the most populated regions of the state.

During the early stages of TF-Central, Capt. Eric Siemens of Marshalltown was a one-man show. A police patrol officer in his civilian life and a commander of the 186th Military Police Company on drill weekends, Siemens was called to a state active duty status and asked to establish the TF-Central command post at the 734th Regional Support Group headquarters building.

“Being an MP doesn’t always mean being a military police officer,” Siemens said. “More often we joke about it really meaning, ‘multipurpose.’”

As the Iowa National Guard’s mission set grew – from the delivery of vital medical supplies to the operation of drive-up testing sites and support for local food banks – the staff at TF-Central also increased. Soon, Siemens was surrounded by familiar faces.

Of the 12 officers initially supporting the command post, seven had attended the same Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program at Iowa State University in Ames.

“It’s all about the people,” said Maj. Jared Gledhill, the second officer in charge of the 734th RSG. “It’s not necessarily all about the university, but it’s all about the people.”

Gledhill, who grew up in a rural Iowa town, said many of the things that make Cyclone cadets into good officers are inherently Iowan – strong values, work ethic and dedication.

Gledhill started as a cadet at Iowa State in spring 2002 during a time many young people felt called to serve their nation.

“I’m one of the 9/11 kids,” he said, referring to the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania in September 2001.

During his four years at the program and two years working as a recruiter and instructor for the program after that, Gledhill interacted with as many as 450 cadets. A few of whom he is now working alongside during the state’s first response to a global pandemic.

“You really never know who you’re going to run into,” said Siemens, who had worked with Gledhill at Iowa State after his own commission in 2010.

Between Lt. Col. Lee Vandewater, the 734th RSG’s officer in charge, and 1st Lt. Kevin Mott, a 2017 graduate of the Iowa State program now serving on state active duty, the seven officers at TF-Central span 20 years of Cyclone cadets.

“It’s almost a generational thing around here,” said Capt. Theodore Knust, a Melcher-Dallas native and the 734th RSG personnel officer.

Knust, a self-described farm kid, said Iowa State, known for its agricultural program, had been the obvious choice for him when he was considering college. Like many of the other cadets, Knust had already enlisted in the military and was a specialist before joining the ROTC program.

“The bar was set very high there,” Knust said of his time at Iowa State in the Cyclone Battalion. “It was absolutely from the top down.”

From 2011 to 2013, the Iowa State program won the MacArthur Award for the top ROTC battalion of its size.

“A tradition of excellence was just something that was expected,” Siemens said.

One of the former primary military instructors at the program signed his emails, “Be strong and courageous,” a motto that has stayed with many of the cadets years later.

Cadets were up before the sun on Cyclone game days, not to tailgate, but to patrol the parking lots and provide security at the stadium. Seniors in the program spent as many as 30 hours a week, outside of an already challenging course load, planning training events.

“It was early mornings every morning,” Knust said. “It wasn’t a bad thing; it was just a thing.”

There was no time for thirsty Thursday when physical training started at 6 a.m. Friday. There was no room for typical college shenanigans when a scholarship – or a commission as an officer in the United States Army – was on the line.

“Our college experience was not the normal college experience,” Knust said. “I felt like, for most of us, ROTC was the reason we were in college in the first place.”

Knust said Army training and requirements often took priority over academics, but there was no tolerance for poor grade point averages. To meet the mark of excellence – the thrice-achieved MacArthur Award – GPA was a major factor.

“They really instilled a sense of character among us,” Siemens said.

Out of those challenging experiences, the Cyclone Battalion created enduring friendships.

“Those were your friends because you didn’t really have time for anyone else,” Knust said. “Our expectations were shared.”

Now, a few years later for some, a couple decades later for others, those tough lessons learned and shared hardships are enabling the Iowa National Guard’s response to a global threat.

“We all have different backgrounds, but we have something in common,” Gledhill said. “There’s a common point on that path, which was Ames.”

Although the former Cyclones outnumber the other officers at TF-Central, they don’t outrank the resident Hawkeye.

Col. Mark Coble, the 734th RSG commander, is a 1990 graduate of the University of Iowa’s rival program.

While there are plenty of jokes between Coble and his Cyclone-majority staff, he said the truth is much less polarizing.

After many years relishing in the rivalry between Iowa State and the University of Iowa – particularly at the annual Game Ball Run, where ROTC cadets shuttle a football the 140 or so miles between Ames and Iowa City on foot – Coble said the Soldiers in the two programs have more in common than not.

“All three of our state universities are a tremendous source of leaders within both our communities and the National Guard,” Coble said, recognizing the University of Northern Iowa as well.

Whether it’s a state university or a private college, whether it’s a commission through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps or the Officer Candidate School, Coble said the best thing Iowa National Guard officers have in common is that they’re Iowans.

“When they’re serving outside of Iowa, they still have that Iowa identity,” Coble said, “which does set them apart from their peers.”



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