Last summer, while members of the Washington Army National Guard battled forest fires in Eastern Washington, another group of Guardsmen prepared to deploy to the Middle East to serve as law enforcement. It’s a perfect example of the Guard’s mission — to respond when disaster strikes at home, and answer the call when their country needs them around the world.
Command Sgt. Major Steve Saunders is one of the guys who works to keep the 6,000 Guard members in our state ready for missions here and abroad. He moved to Yakima a few years ago with the Homeland Response Force, another arm of the National Guard. “After 9/11 the Homeland Response Forces were set up across the country to align with the 10 FEMA regions. It was originally designed to respond to a nuclear detonation somewhere within the United States,” he says.
His outreach team works with fire departments and municipalities to coordinate response plans in case of chemical, nuclear or biological weapons attack. They coordinate with the Department of Energy, State Patrol, counties, and even the prison system.
Saunders is the kind of guy you’d want protecting us if all hell broke loose. He’s nearly 6’ 5”, calm, measured, and solid as a rock. He signed up at 18 and became a member of the Army Rangers, an elite direct-action raid force, and soon was facing one of the scariest moments of his service, as the U.S. invaded Panama in 1989 to overthrow military dictator Manuel Noriega. He parachuted onto an airfield bristling with anti-aircraft guns. “When you got closer to the door you could see the tracers coming up towards the aircraft and out the door you went … It was just adrenaline, and a feeling of ‘Is this really happening?’” he recalls.
In 2009 he deployed to Afghanistan, where his unit trained and mentored Afghan infantry units. Once, after the Taliban swept through a village shooting civilians, a man brought a wounded woman out to them in a wheelbarrow, then refused to let the medic, who was black, touch her. “We were watching her bleed out. She was going to die. And so I’m talking through the interpreter to the elder, saying ‘This is my doc. Yes, he’s a black man and yes, he’s the only one out of all of us right here who has the expertise to save your wife. And if he can’t put his hands on her, and if he can’t expose the wound, or look at her, you might as well wheelbarrow her back over to the cemetery, because she’s not going to make it.’” Finally, her husband gave the medic consent to treat her. They packed her wound, medevacked her out and she survived.
Saunders still misses being deployed overseas “at the pointy end of the spear” he says. “It’s a lot of risk, but really, what I miss is the camaraderie. Your team. The guys to your left and right.”
He also served in the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand, and in nearly 30 years of service and multiple firefights, he was never wounded. Ironically, he suffered his worst injuries here. He was driving to work early one morning in Wapato last winter when he was hit head-on by a young kid who crossed the centerline. The kid was late to work and had been navigating through a peephole in his windshield with the rest covered with frost. Saunders had zero time to react and suffered serious injuries to his back, knee and wrist. The kid was killed. Saunders recovered, but his injuries left him undeployable, because he can no longer bounce around in a truck over rough terrain or carry a heavy rucksack. He relinquished his position as Command Sgt. Major of the 1st Battalion, 161st Infantry Regiment last month in a bittersweet ceremony at which he received a meritorious service medal. He’s still working full time in his Homeland Response Force role, but at age 49, is now considering a career move. The military will be a tough act to follow. “I never felt like I was going to work — my whole career,” he says with a smile. It was always just something he loved.
Saunders wanted me to mention that there are 70-80 open positions in the Washington Army National Guard at the Yakima Training Center. Some are full-time, and some are part-time. He says they pay well and have great benefits. "We're short across the board," he says. They need people to go into mechanics, artillery, mortars, infantry, reconnaissance and communications systems. To inquire, call the Army National Guard at 509-469-4647.