Love of Learning: A salute to our citizen soldiers

Philomath is often nicknamed the “City of Volunteers.” When things need to be done around here, people always seem to step up, pitch in and help out. This month, in recognition of Armed Forces Day, Love of Learning wants to honor a few of the citizen-soldiers from Philomath who are “Always Ready, Always There” and proudly serve in the Oregon Army National Guard.

Command Sgt. Maj. Garry Black
Command Sgt. Maj. Garry Black

For example, day-to-day, Garry Black serves his community as the operations supervisor for the city of Philomath’s Public Works Department. He has helped Philomath maintain its Tree City USA status every year with the Arbor Day Foundation and expanded our celebration to teach elementary school children from Philomath and Kings Valley how to plant trees on Arbor Day.

Garry was recognized in December 2020 by the Oregon Community Trees with the 2020 Urban and Community Forestry Award for outstanding accomplishment in promoting and protecting our community forests and improving the quality of life in Oregon. Just two weeks ago, Garry helped organize the 2021 Arbor Day celebration by working with Mayor Chas Jones and Rick Flacco from the Philomath Tree Board to plant two trees on Applegate Street.

What you may not know is that Garry served our state and our country in the Oregon Army National Guard for 26 years. He was deployed to Iraq with the Oregon National Guard for 18 months. He also served in a variety of capacities ranging from humanitarian efforts here at home to combat roles overseas. He earned the rank of command sergeant major before retiring.

Jamel Mercado is originally from Spanish Harlem, in New York City and moved to Oregon as a teenager. He volunteered for the Oregon Army National Guard in the wake of the 9/11 attacks back in 2001. He was sworn in on Sept. 28, 2001, and has served our state and country in the Oregon Army National Guard for almost 20 years now.

Jamel Mercado doing training
Sgt. 1st Class Jamel Mercado, right, conducts training with the 102nd Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team. Volunteer citizen-soldiers like Jamel train to keep us safe from some of the most unimaginable threats and reflects the motto, “Always Ready, Always There.” (Oregon Army National Guard Public Affairs Office)

Jamel deployed on three different combat tours during his time in service. He deployed as a cavalry scout in Iraq in 2003-2005 at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He deployed a second time to Iraq in 2008-2010 during the surge of forces to defeat al-Qaeda terrorist cells operating there. Finally in 2011-2012 he deployed to support Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan to maintain peace in a worn-torn country.

Interesting fact is SSG Mercado previously served under Garry Black when Garry was the first sergeant of his outfit. Jamel has more recently served as a recruiter for the Army National Guard since 2018 and just moved his family into a new home in Millpond Crossing right here in Philomath.

Jamel was just promoted from the rank of staff sergeant to the rank of sergeant first class on May 5. He is thrilled to be living in Philomath and we would like to extend him and his family a hearty congratulations on his promotion and also a warm welcome to our wonderful community.

Connar Kohn is a senior in the Class of 2021 and graduates Philomath High School next month. He expressed interest in joining the Army National Guard last year, during his junior year, and liked the idea of serving in the military as a member of the National Guard while also providing him the flexibility to remain a part of the Philomath community.

Connar chose an early enlistment option that allowed him to attend Army Basic Training during June, July and August of 2020 at Fort Benning, Georgia, which is located about an hour south of Atlanta. Despite having to attend basic training in the summer humidity of Georgia, Connar overcame the additional challenge of wearing a mask during boot camp in the middle of a pandemic. He is one tough “son-of-a-Kohn.”

After competing as a varsity wrestler this spring for the Philomath Warriors, Connar will return to Fort Benning this summer to complete 12 weeks of advanced individual training to become a full-fledged Infantryman. He is looking forward to close quarter combat training which combines jiu jitsu, kickboxing wrestling, boxing and Russian sambo (some kind of Soviet combat technique) . I am sure his toughness from Philomath Wrestling will serve him well as he pursues this training. Go Private Kohn! Incidentally, I asked Private Kohn if he would advise anyone to talk back to drill sergeants and he very quickly replied, “absolutely not!”

Gen. Dan Hokanson
Gen. Dan Hokanson

Dan Hokanson is originally from Happy Camp, California, which is just 20 miles south of the Oregon border and nicknamed the “Steelhead Capital of the World” sitting along the Klamath River. Dan graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, back in 1986. When he graduated, he decided he wanted to fly helicopters and chose the aviation branch.

He attended flight school at Fort Rucker, Alabama, and was initially stationed at Fort Ord in Monterey California. He deployed to Panama in December 1989 as part of Operation Just Cause to remove Manuel Noriega from power and bring him to justice on drug smuggling charges.

Dan later attended the Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey and rose through the ranks to command the 41st Brigade Combat Team of the Oregon Army National Guard when they deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Here’s another interesting fact: SSG Jamel Mercado, served under Dan when he commanded the 41st Brigade in Iraq).

Dan later served as the adjutant general commanding the entire Oregon National Guard from 2013-2015. In 2020, he was selected to serve as the chief of the National Guard Bureau for our entire country becoming a four-star general. He now sits on the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon. We should all take comfort and pride that the former commander of the Oregon Army National Guard, and a native son of the Pacific Northwest, now serves our nation at the absolute highest level in the Pentagon on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Imagine for a moment if you had to open Gen. Hokanson’s s email every morning over this past year: You’ve got mail! How would the titles of the email read? COVID outbreak need millions of pallets of PPE. Send help! Riots across the country — bring riot gear. Spike in unemployment claims, need your support. Need medics and nurses to vaccinate New York City. Send graves registration personnel ASAP. Oregon is on fire, send help fast! Can you send some troops to Kosovo and some to Djibouti? You got any spare respirators? Please send helicopters to Afghanistan! We need troops to protect the United States Capitol right away. The steelhead are running on the Klamath back here in Happy Camp, wish you were here! I think it gives you a better perspective of what these citizen soldiers do for us.

Jamel Mercado, Garry Black and Connar Kohn
Philomath salutes these Oregon Army National Guard soldiers. Sgt. 1st Class Jamel Mercado, left, Command Sgt. Maj. Garry Black, seated, and Pvt. Connar Kohn, right. (Photo by Eric Niemann)

Saturday, May 15 marks Armed Forces Day. Armed Forces Day differs from both Memorial Day and Veterans Day as a day to celebrate those currently serving. We should all take a moment to reflect on the courage and selfless sacrifice of the 8,100 Oregon National Guard Soldiers in our community, across our state and those deployed all around the world. Despite all the terrible things we witnessed last year during the pandemic, I would offer that the Oregon National Guard represented the very best of Oregonians by voluntarily participating in efforts like Task Force Assurance to help with the coronavirus response and OPLAN Smokey to fight Oregon wildfires. One thing I would encourage readers to take a minute to watch is the brief YouTube clip of the 2020 Oregon Guard in Review. It highlights how the guard stepped up to get us through all the challenges of 2020.

Our editor’s wife, Canda Fuqua, has recently volunteered to join the Oregon Army National Guard and leaves for basic training at Fort Leonard Wood at the end of the month. We are proud of her willingness to serve our community and our country in this capacity. The homefront here in Philomath needs to step up and help Brad and the kids while she is away learning how to serve us. A couple of parting words of advice for Canda from Pvt. Kohn. “Don’t talk back to the drill sergeants!”

(Eric Niemann is a former mayor and city councilor in Philomath. He can be reached at [email protected]).

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