LATHAM, N.Y. – Twenty-nine years after walking into a recruiting office, Chief Master Sgt. Shawn Peno says he probably makes a better Soldier than he does an Airman.
He's proud to be a member of the Rainbow Division Veterans Foundation – the veterans' group for the New York Army National Guard's 42nd Infantry Division – and to wear as many Army ribbons as he has Air Force ribbons.
"I can speak Army and I can speak Air, and I can translate between the two," he said.
But Peno, an Air National Guard weatherman who spent most of his career working in Army headquarters, said he's incredibly proud to wear his Air Force blue.
"I walked by the Army recruiter and I walked into the Air Force recruiter's office on purpose," he said.
Peno serves as the Senior Enlisted Leader in the New York National Guard's Joint Operations Directorate, overseeing the domestic civil support operations of the Guard. He retires at the end of the year.
He's had a great career and has been part of some significant history along the way.
As a young man from Schenectady, Shawn Peno discovered he needed a degree to get a good job and he needed a job to get a degree. He had neither. Joining the Air Force was a way to fix that.
He had some college and great test scores and thought forecasting weather would be cool, so he enlisted to be an Air Force weatherman. After basic training and weather school – he learned to identify 27 "states of the sky" – he was assigned to Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
"I said to the sergeant, 'I didn't know the Air Force had forts.' He said, "No dummy, you are assigned to the Army.'"
After Fort Belvoir, he reported to Heidelberg, Germany, to support the Seventh U.S. Army.
That took him to Hungary, Croatia and Bosnia. When the 1st Armored Division rolled into Bosnia in 1995 to end the civil war there, Shawn Peno rolled in alongside the tankers.
"We were doing good. We were peacekeepers. We were stopping them from fighting each other," Peno said.
His last active-duty station was Fort Bragg, North Carolina, supporting 18th Airborne Corps and the 82nd Airborne Division.
Family issues took him out of the active Air Force, so he joined the Massachusetts Air National Guard's weather flight at Camp Edwards on Cape Cod. He was living in Connecticut and it was the closest unit, Peno explained.
The 202nd Weather Flight's mission was to support the 42nd Infantry Division, headquartered in Troy, New York, but with units across the Northeast. That was his introduction to the Army National Guard.
He took part in Warfighter command post exercises and helped prepare for a deployment to Bosnia.
Following the 9/11 attacks, Peno provided weather information to the Massachusetts Air National Guard's 102nd Fighter Wing flying combat air patrol missions over New York City. Simultaneously he served as the staff weather officer for the 42nd Infantry Division overseeing the National Guard state duty deployment in New York.
When the 42nd Infantry Division was tapped to deploy to Iraq in 2004, Peno went along.
First, he went to Fort Drum, New York, for the division's post-mobilization training. Then to Iraq, serving as the 42nd Infantry Division's weather expert in Tikrit, Iraq, for seven months.
He also worked for a month in Baghdad, supporting Multi-National Corps - Iraq and Multi-National Security Transition Command - Iraq.
"I loved what I was doing. I was part of the 42nd," he said. "I found a passion and a skill. I understood what (the Army) guys were asking for and how to take the data and turn it into a functional product."
Back in the U.S., Peno went on duty for a year with the Army's 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum.
Then he did a tour at National Guard Bureau in 2007, and again in 2008, working hurricane weather prediction.
Next, Peno was asked to come work at New York National Guard headquarters.
The operations directorate created a state-of-the-art joint operations center, and Peno was asked to be one of the noncommissioned officers making it work.
He took an "administrative bust" from E-8 to E-7 to take the job. But it was worth it, Peno said. He liked the challenge and: "An AGR (Active Guard and Reserve) E-7 makes more than a part-time E-8."
He handled command post and weather duties for the back-to-back Hurricanes Irene and Lee in 2011 and then Superstorm Sandy in 2012. During Sandy, he also served as the weather officer for the dual status commander.
He's also continued to do weather for National Guard Bureau since 2013 while handling his duties in New York. That, Peno said, has been a great job.
"I'm a kid from Schenectady who went down to the Pentagon situation room to brief the undersecretary of defense on hurricanes," Peno recalled. "It was pretty amazing."
Peno's New York duties, meanwhile, grew to include managing information for the joint operations director, working as a liaison officer, and training others on how to do the work.
"Shawn was a constant professional," said retired Sgt. Major Michael Hartzell. "If you are going to build a joint team, Shawn would be the guy you want."
In 2016, Peno was tapped to be the top NCO in the operations shop. Traditionally that was an Army Guard job.
But Brig. Gen. John Andonie, who is now the director of joint staff for the New York National Guard and was then the operations director, thought having an Air Guard NCO in that role would be good and having Chief Master Sgt. Shawn Peno there would be even better.
"He is a subject matter expert on the weather, but he brings so much more to the table," Andonie said. "He is a trusted adviser at the highest levels of the National Guard."
In his new job, Peno – a self-confessed computer geek – continued to manage information, but also went out in the field when disasters hit to act as the eyes of the operations shop.
He also picked up a new mission: teaching West Point cadets about the National Guard and civil support missions.
Each year the U.S. Military Academy conducts an emergency response exercise with the Fire Department of New York. For the past three years, Peno has delivered a lecture on how the National Guard works in civil support missions.
"I am one of the few Airmen they encounter in an official capacity and the only enlisted Airman they meet as an instructor," he said.
He's had some terrific experiences, but 2020, as the New York National Guard deployed 3,600 Soldiers and Airmen to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, was truly memorable.
He went across the state talking to Soldiers and Airmen and helping solve problems when he could. The men and women on the ground were tremendous, he said.
His message for new Soldiers and Airmen is to ignore the old saw about never volunteering.
"We're always told, never volunteer," Peno said. "And if it is volunteering for latrine cleaning detail, that makes sense," he joked.
"But if the mission is to volunteer to help with disaster relief, then go," he said. Stepping up leads to new opportunities, he said.
Being in the National Guard means being a unique kind of warrior, Peno emphasized.
"The same skills we use to fight wars, we use to help people, to be the citizen part of Citizen-Airman or Citizen-Soldier."