HELENA — This weekend, more than 40 people from around Montana – ranging in age from 16 to their early 30s – gathered at Fort Harrison, outside Helena, to get a firsthand idea of what it means to be part of the Montana National Guard.
They took part in the “Be a Guardsman” event, where they went through some of the same training exercises National Guard soldiers would.
“Really what it’s about is to allow people to come out and see what it’s like to be a National Guardsman for a weekend,” said Col. Greg Olson, the garrison commander for the Montana Army National Guard.
The participants practiced rappelling from a roughly 40-foot tower, got closer looks at military equipment like tanks and helicopters, and learned to fire mock weapons using an electronic simulator. On the fort’s range, they watched as live weapons were fired – though, for safety reasons, no civilians were allowed to actually fire them.
Jonathan Hamilton, a recent graduate of Flathead High School, said a friend in the Guard encouraged him to take part, saying it could be useful experience as he pursues a career in law enforcement.
“The stuff that they go through to get here is definitely a lot,” he said. “That sticks out to me.”
Isaac Sturgeon, from Dillon, said he has been considering joining the Guard for about two years.
“I have a landscaping business and nothing to do in the winter, and I’ve always wanted to serve my country,” he said. “I’m 30 years old, so that window is closing, you could say. I want to get my foot in the door and figure out what happens next.”
National Guard leaders say this is the first time they have held the “Be a Guardsman” program. They originally expected about 20 people, and were pleased with the high turnout.
Olson said he hopes this weekend will convince some of the participants to sign up, but he also sees the event as a way to connect with the public.
“So that the citizens across the state of Montana better understand what it that the National Guard does – that the National Guard will be there to help support them in times of need, whether it be a fire or earthquake or flood,” he said.
Hamilton said he’s still not sure whether he’ll pursue the Guard. He’s concerned about having to leave the state for things like basic training, but said he is interested in the opportunities it could open for him.
“It’s still an iffy decision for me,” he said.
But Sturgeon said this weekend increased his interest.
“I look forward to the strictness, the excitement,” he said. “If I get to serve my country, it’s definitely worth it to me.”