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N.Y. Guard Warrant Officer reinvented career to keep serving

By Eric Durr | New York National Guard | Dec. 3, 2018

LATHAM, N.Y. - Throughout a military career that began in 1981, New York Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officer 3 Al Thiem has been reinventing himself.

He was an enlisted Soldier who became an officer. Then he was a tanker who became a helicopter pilot and then a tanker again. And finally he was a lieutenant colonel who became a warrant officer.

Along the way he responded to the massive Northeast ice storm of 1998, the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Hurricane Irene, Hurricane Sandy and deployed to Iraq with the 42nd Infantry Division in 2005. Now he's on active duty with the 173rd Cyber Protection Team at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland.

He just kept on looking for new ways to serve, Thiem said recently after being promoted to chief warrant officer 3.

At age 17 in 1981, Al Thiem joined the Vermont Army National Guard's 2nd Battalion, 172th Armor as a chemical operations specialist.

"I was young. I did not have much money. I needed time between high school and college and I didn't know what I wanted to do,"Thiem recalled.

Thiem enlisted, went through basic and then chemical school, and then entered college a year later. While attending Castleton State College he discovered ROTC and decided to reinvent himself as an officer. He was commissioned in 1985.

Thiem picked armor as his branch, because he was in an armor battalion, but back in chemical school he'd taken a ride in a UH-1 Huey and decided that someday he wanted to be a pilot.

So Thiem interviewed with a Vermont Army Guard helicopter unit in Burlington. He scored 135 points out of the 150 maximum score on the Army Flight Aptitude Selection Test. He joined the 186th General Support Aviation Company in 1987, went to flight school in 1988 and graduated in 1989.

He served as a helicopter platoon leader and then an air traffic control detachment commander in the Vermont Army National Guard.

But Burlington was 124 miles away from Ballston Spa, where he lived, and 42nd Infantry Division headquarters in Troy was only 25 miles away. Thiem learned about an assistant operations job for an aviator at the 42nd Division, interviewed for it, and never looked back.

In 1995 he was asked to take on command of a tank company of the 101st Cavalry. He'd already commanded a detachment as a captain, but "the old rule of thumb was you never turn down a command," Thiem said.

So once more he was back in an armor unit. He held that job until 1998.

When an ice storm devastated the North Country in January 1998, Thiem and his tank company were sent to St. Lawrence County to help local governments respond.

Then it was back to the 42nd Division. Thiem held a number of operations positions and deployed to Iraq with the division in 2005 as the G-3 Air, working in the 42nd Division Main Headquarters in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Tikrit, Iraq.

When the 42nd came home, Thiem continued to serve as G3 Air and made lieutenant colonel. He filled a number of other staff positions including Division Chemical Officer.

Eventually he hit his mandatory retirement date after 28 years of serving as an officer.

But Al Thiem still wanted to keep wearing the uniform.

"I was 49, I looked at myself, and said, ‘I still have a lot more to give.' I wasn't ready to give it up. I could still max my PT test," Thiem said.

So he worked with the New York Army National Guard's warrant officer recruiter to make the jump from field grade officer to warrant. The New York Army National Guard needed four electronic warfare warrant officers and Al Thiem figured he could be one.

He didn't have the experience, but he had a top secret security clearance along with technical ability and he was willing to invest the time in going to school. He went through the Electronic Warfare warrant officer basic course in 2014.

And then Warrant Officer Al Thiem was ready to start his second military career (third if you want to count his time as an enlisted Soldier).

Transitioning from being a lieutenant colonel to a warrant officer is not unknown, but it is unusual, according to Chief Warrant Officer 5 Jackie O'Keefe, the New York Army National Guard's Command Chief Warrant Officer.

"During my 34 years of service I've only known of six people who've done it, including Lt. Col. Thiem,"she said.

At one time an officer with a branch that would apply directly to a warrant officer field of expertise, like aviation or ordnance could easily convert, O'Keefe said. Now, though, officers like Thiem seeking to make the transition must demonstrate that they have talents and skills the Army needs.

And unofficially, they also have to be able to "park their ego"and go from a command position to not being in a command position, O'Keefe said.

Her experience, O'Keefe said, is that officers who make that jump, like Thiem, really just want to keep serving.

Since he's made that transition to warrant officer status, Thiem served as an electronic warfare technician in the 42nd Division (where he has spent 25 years) and in the 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team Headquarters.

He's been to the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, gone through four brigades and division level Warfighter exercises and served as the second in command of the New York National Guard Homeland Response Force when the 42nd Infantry Division first had that mission from 2011 thru 2014. Thiem recently completed the Electronic Warfare warrant officer advance course in 2017.

Now he's ready to go to Kuwait with the 42nd Infantry Division in 2020 just 9 months after returning from his current mobilization.

It's been tough on his wife Susan, Thiem said, but she's been supportive and able to handle the home front while he is away.

"In four years I can start collecting my retirement pay. I'll decide then if I want to defer my retirement a little more,"he said.