Faces of NGAI – LTC Shawn Gardner
Last month I sat down with Lt. Col. Shawn Gardner to get to know more about him, his service and his role in the National Guard Association of Indiana. Lt. Col. Gardner is the commanding officer of the Indiana Army National Guard Recruiting and Retention Battalion. He is also the recently elected and currently serving President of the NGAI. He is an Infantryman by trade with 17.5 years of service. He is married with 2 children.
Why did you join the military?
I’ve always had a heart and a passion to serve. Having two grandfathers that served in WWII and knowing the commitment and sacrifice they made for the country, I thought it was my duty as an American to serve. That’s really what led me to pursue an interest in service in the military. When I was at Indiana University I met a good friend, Rich Choppa, who had jumped into Panama with the Ranger Battalion and served in the 82nd.
He was telling me all these amazing Army stories and I said, “That’s what I want to do! I’m going to drop out of college and enlist.”
Rich said, “No, no, time out. You have too much invested in college. You’re going to be an officer.”
I had no idea what that meant but I said, “I trust you. But what’s that mean? Let’s do it.”
So he took me down to IU ROTC department where I met, at that time Captain Schweitzer , who ended up being Brigadier General Switzer, the professor of military science. He took me on as a young cadet at IU ROTC. That’s how my military career got started.
How long were you in ROTC?
I started in my junior year. I was majoring in biology at IU and applying to med school to become a doctor. I always had a heart to serve but the adventurous side of me took hold.
When I went to ROTC they said, “If you want to be a commissioned officer, you’ll have to stay an extra year.” I said, “If you are paying for it, I’m in.”
So that’s how I ended up being a two year ROTC cadet.
So your first summer, did you go to ROTC training? That was pretty soon, right?
Right, so between my junior and senior year, my 3rd and 4th year in college, I went to Fort Knox for training and then stayed an extra year to finish up my ROTC requirements.
You had two grandfathers in WWII. What branch were they?
One was a Seabee in the Navy and the other was a combat engineer in the Army.
Did that have any role in deciding on the Army?
This is an interesting story of how I really decided to join. I was always interested in the Army. When I was a sophomore in high school sitting in my doctor’s office back home in southern Indiana getting ready to go get my athletic physical, there was a Time magazine article on Army Rangers and I remember reading that article thinking, “Wow that is awesome.” That is what I want to do.
The passion and the heart were there, but didn’t know quite yet how to connect the dots to get there. Obviously the Lord had a plan and He got me to where I am today.
Were you always career minded? If not, when did you become career minded?
My original goal, once I joined the military, was to go do all the exciting “hooah” Airborne Rangers activities; get all the badges and tabs and everything I could collect. I wanted to experience those opportunities, get out, go to medical school, and come back in as an Army doc. Then this thing called the “Global War on Terror” kicked off. I’m a Soldier at heart, so I went off to Afghanistan in late 2001, came back, got married, and then had children. At that point in time, career priorities shifted and the time commitment to go to medical school had been overcome by family.
The military was still something that I had a passion for and a desire to do. So I said, “I love being an infantryman. I love serving the nation. So let’s just stay on this career path.”
You were active Army and then came into the guard?
I was. I was in the 82nd Airborne Division and spent some time in special operations. I left active duty and came back to Indiana.
What is it that drives your passion for the Army?
It’s the opportunity to make a difference. I can’t think of a better organization that has such an impact on the world’s security. That’s what I love about the Army. But I take that a step further, and that’s my love for the Guard. Not only do we have the same impact by being able to accomplish a mission anywhere around the world, we impact the homeland. When there is a national disaster, a tornado, a flood, an ice storm, it’s not the Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps or big Army who come out to help the citizens of Indiana. It’s the National Guard. To have that opportunity, to have a direct impact on the community you live in is definitely something that drives my passion.
What would Lt. Col. Gardner said to Lt. Gardner if the two of you could meet?
This is some advice that I received when I was a young second lieutenant from my first company commander, Capt. Kevin Pettit. I’ve shared this advice with many other young lieutenants and captains along my career: When things are hectic and bullets are flying and chaos abounds, before you pick up the hand mic and talk, gather yourself, assess the situation, be calm, cool, collected. Know what you’re going to say and then say it. That same advice not only fits in a combat situation, it is also applies in board meetings or communications with friends. Be mindful of what you’re going to say before you say it. That is advice that we can all follow and be better off for it.
What are you most proud of during your career? What achievement or event?
The military has been such an important part of my life and I love it dearly. It has given me opportunities that a farm boy from southern Indiana would never have experience if I had taken a different career path. The thing I’m most proud of is the fact that my family has stuck with me through this career choice. It’s not an easy life; it’s is definitely taxing on families. They have endured many of the hardships alongside me. They have loved me, supported me and lifted me up when I needed it. To be able to have them by my side and love me unconditionally has been one of the biggest successes. It takes a special wife to do that. This is a hard environment to raise a family. Their understanding has been a key to my ability to do my job.
What is the toughest challenge you’ve ever faced in your career?
I think anytime we fail, it’s tough. Most Soldiers are Type A personalities driven to succeed. I went to Special Forces Selection Assessment. I unfortunately had to leave training five days prior to graduation due to a blown out Achilles tendon. To be that close to something that you desired so desperately and knowing that there was no physical way you could get there was heart breaking. The heart and mind were willing but the body just wasn’t able to carry on.
That was probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to overcome emotionally and mentally from a training point. I always succeeded in everything I had done. It was a humbling experience for me and a learning lesson. In these situations, you have to constantly remind yourself that there’s an ultimate plan for our lives, even though it’s not always the plan we want. An important lesson in life; good things can come from bad situations. I can look back now and see the opportunities that I’ve experienced and shared with great friends and fellow Soldiers. I wouldn’t have those memories if events had transpired differently. It can take years of reflection to see the good in a bad situation. Maturity has given me wisdom in that regard.
Do you still look back at that with a little heartache?
I do, but only a little. Sometimes, I look back and think, if I could’ve only made it five more days.
I went to the medic that next morning after injuring myself to get some Motrin. I was thinking that maybe I could suck it up if I tape my foot up and took something to ease the pain. I saw a Physician’s Assistant who had served in MACV in Vietnam.
He said “Son, you’re damaged too severely. You’re going to have to quit.”
I replied, “Sir, I’ve never quit anything in my life. I’m not quitting this.”
So I stood up and started to hobble out his the office and he slammed the door in front of me.
“Sit down, I know your type. You’re going to go out there and damage yourself so bad trying to succeed that you’ll hurt yourself to the point we won’t be able to keep you in the Army. I’m not giving you that option. I’m protecting you from yourself. You’re a medical drop.”
And he medical dropped me from the course.
I went home and sat on the couch with a cast on my foot all summer long and sulked about it. But again, great opportunities have arisen from that set back.
How did you get involved in the National Guard Association?
I was a young officer and had a senior mentor say, “You need to belong to the association. It’s important as an officer that you be involved in the associations of your organizations.” I didn’t fully get it at the time.
I said, “Yes Sir. I get it. This is for my own good.”
Even though I didn’t really want to spend the money, I did it because I trusted him as a senior leader and mentor. So, more out of duty and obligation than out of volunteerism I signed up for the association. Then as I was in the association, I began to see the benefit the association brings to our service members by representing them in a way they can’t by themselves. Shaping policy that benefits service members and their families is a key focus of association.
How about leadership involvement? You’re now the president of the association.
I was fortunate enough to be elected NGAI president a couple of months ago. That simply came out of dialog with folks saying, “I think you ought to run for this office. You’re a strong candidate for it.” People said, “We need you to step up. We need you to do this.” And I’m always looking for an opportunity to give and serve.
I appreciate their vote of confidence in what I can bring to the association to help move it forward.
How long have you been in the association?
About 8 years, ever since I came to Indiana.
What role does the association have in the future and what should the goals be?
I’m excited about the association. For a few months, I’ve had the opportunity to observe where the association is currently and identify our strengths and also assess some of the weaknesses. One of our strengths is our ability to work with other veteran organizations and military organizations within the State to have a positive impact on veterans and Guardsmen. The impact ranges from shaping public policy to partnering with corporations who want to provide services and benefits for service members. Our primary weaknesses is membership. We’re going to make a very strategic push in our membership efforts.
The Association has always been important, however; during the last decade of war, it got pushed to the back of people’s minds. They were focused on preparing for deployment, coming back from deployment and then getting ready to go again. I’m very understanding why the membership has waned but since peace broke out, we are continuing to move forward to grown the Association.
What role will you play in the NGAI and the National Guard in the future? Do you have any goals after being president of NGAI?
I love the Guard and appreciate its positive impact in Indiana. I love serving this State and the Nation. I’m two and a half years from my 20 years active federal service. I want to stay as long as the Guard will have me. But I know that at some point it will be time to retire, move on to other things and give the next generation an opportunity to step up.
At least while I’m here, I want to grow this organization an impress upon a younger generation the importance of the association and the benefits it brings to service members and veterans. I serve at the needs of the organization and the discretion of the Adjutant General. While I’m here, I am going to give it everything I have, every single day. Rangers Lead the Way!
It took a few tries to get our schedules to line up. Lt. Col. Gardner is wearing a lot of hats and I appreciate the time he offered for this interview. I wish him continued success in his career and as he begins his term as president.