By Army Sgt. Neil Gussman
Special to American Forces Press Service
Nov. 18, 2009 - National Guard soldiers bring a variety of life and work experiences with them on deployment, and even the smallest unit can include a surprising array of skills and experience. In October, Task Force Keystone's Alaska-based C Company, 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment, needed a crew for a routine flight to two of their remote sites. Illinois' A Company, 1-106th, supplied that crew, which wound up flying a Pennsylvania National Guard Black Hawk helicopter.
The diversity the National Guard embodies is reflected in the jumble of helicopters and crews that came together to accomplish a single mission and is echoed in the stories behind the four Illinois soldiers.
In the left pilot seat was Army Chief Warrant Officer Patrick Schroeder, 38, an instructor pilot with 21 years of service. The Sherman, Ill., native joined the Army in 1988 and served as a UH-1 Huey mechanic for four years before attending flight school.
In 2003, he took a job flying the governor of Illinois. Prior to being deployed in January 2009, he even flew for Gov. Rod Blagojevich before his removal from office.
Schroeder said he enjoyed the times he was able to fly then-Lt. Gov. Patrick Quinn, and that he looks forward to flying for Quinn, now the governor, when he returns from deployment. Married just a month before he was called back to active duty, this is his second deployment, Schroeder said. He first deployed in 2004 with A Company for 15 months.
In the right pilot seat was Army Chief Warrant Officer Nathan McKean, 31, of Decatur, Ill. McKean has served 12 years, beginning with four years in the Navy, during which he built bombs on the aircraft carrier USS Stennis and served in a combat search-and-rescue unit based in San Diego.
McKean came home in 2001, he said, enrolled in college, and joined the Army National Guard. He trained as a crew chief with B Company, 1-106th. After leaving active duty, he decided he needed a good job that would allow him time off for military duty — lots of time off. In 2002, he took a job as an engineer on the Norfolk Southern Railroad.
But within a year, he was training to go to Iraq, and he left for a 15-month deployment with B Company in 2004. Soon after he returned, McKean went to flight school for a year, then had additional training before his current tour in Iraq, which began in January. He has worked on the railroad for two and a half years, he said.
Behind McKean, on the right side of the Black Hawk, was Army Sgt. Steve Sunzeri, 26, of Naperville, Ill. Sunzeri has six years in the Illinois Army National Guard. From 2003 to 2007, he served as a scout and infantryman with C Company, 2nd Battalion, 106th Cavalry Regiment. In 2006, he completed the requirements for a bachelor's degree in history. In 2007, he reclassified to become a flight crew chief, deploying in 2009 with A Company, 1-106th.
After nearly two years of service in helicopters, Sunzeri said, he plans to return to college to earn a degree in aviation management at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and at the same time to train to be a commercial pilot. "My goal is to fly fixed-wing aircraft for a major airline," he said.
In the meantime, he will earn the ratings necessary to become a fixed-wing pilot while earning his degree, he said. He plans to continue to serve as a crew chief in the Illinois Army National Guard while he attends college and completes flight training.
In the left seat, behind the pilot, was the door gunner, the youngest member of the crew and the one with the most combat deployments.
Army Cpl. Michael Randazzo, 24, of Queens, N.Y., is on his third deployment in six years with the Army National Guard.
He enlisted shortly after graduating from high school, and he served as an infantryman with the New York-based 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry Regiment. In May 2004, he deployed with the 1-69th to Baghdad and Taji, and spent the time patrolling and conducting raids. He also worked route clearance on Route Irish.
When he returned from Iraq, Randazzo worked for an executive protection company until June 2008, when he volunteered to return to Iraq as a door gunner with 3rd Battalion, 142nd Aviation Regiment.
Near the end of that tour, he volunteered for a second consecutive tour as a door gunner with Company A, 1-106th. When this tour is complete, Randazzo said, plans to return to New York City and "squeeze in a semester of college" before going to flight school next fall.
After flight school, he said, he will continue his college education until 2012, when he plans to deploy to Afghanistan as an Army helicopter pilot.
(Army Sgt. Neil Gussman serves with the 28th Combat Aviation Brigade.)