Americans have served as citizen soldiers in the National Guard for 365 years. Local militias organized by English settlers in the 1600s protected the early colonists from Indian attacks and foreign invaders. After independence, National Guardsmen served alongside regular Army troops in every war the United States has fought - including the war on terrorism.
Today, they are also called upon to provide security, fight wildfires, and deliver humanitarian aid. It's all part of the job for these part-time soldiers who volunteer for one weekend a month and two weeks a year.
Throughout its history, each National Guard unit's tie to the community has created a culture where fathers and sons can serve side by side. Colonel Gene Davenport is the commander of the 139th Airlift Wing in St. Joseph, Missouri. The Air Wing includes eight C-130 Hercules cargo planes, their crews and support personnel. Colonel Davenport, a full-time Air National Guard officer, is responsible for almost 1000 teachers, farmers, workers and other part-time volunteers who serve here, including his two children. "I think it's quite rare for a wing commander to have all his children, or in this case both of them, in the same unit," he said. "Obviously I'm quite proud of them as things go but I think probably my wife had more to do with it than anyone else."
Colonel Davenport says he sometimes missed holidays and birthdays while his children were growing up. The daughters, now grown, say their mom always made sure they knew why their dad's absence was important. And they understood. Although it's been more traditional for sons to follow in their fathers' footsteps, the Davenport girls signed on with the National Guard.
T.J., 30, is now a pilot in the 139th's C-130 squadron. Her younger sister Tracy, a 26-year-old 2nd Lieutenant in the wing's engineering battalion, says joining the Air National Guard seemed like the most natural thing to do. "We grew up out here," she said. "We'd come out when dad was coming back on trips and hanging around the base and seeing what it was all about. You know, from the time when you're five and six going 'who-hoo look at the big planes.' But as you get older and you understand what it is we actually do out here and why the people are volunteering to spend there weekend out here, and weeks away from home, holidays away from home and all of that. We grew up loving it and that's just what we wanted to do. And we each found our niche."
The C-130 planes are huge. Four engines hang from a wing that spans nearly 40 meters. It can carry more than 13,000 kilos of cargo, from troops to a small tank. But those figures don't intimidate T.J., a stay at home mom, who becomes 1st Lieutenant T.J. Scheilbelhofer on weekends, "I remember being a little girl and saying, 'I want to fly planes like daddy did.' And I remember dad telling me, 'well, you can fly planes T.J. but not planes like Daddy flies. Because at the time women were not allowed in the cockpit of these type of planes, " she said. "And it wasn't until I was in college really that that started changing. I said if they can have women why not me? Cause I want to do it."
While all three Davenports may serve together in the 139th Air Wing on occasional weekends and training missions, there are official rules governing the extent of that togetherness. For instance, there must be at least one officer in the chain of command between a child and a parent. And because of regulations to prevent any kind of favoritism among family members assigned to the same unit, Colonel Davenport will never serve on the flight team in the same aircraft as his daughter.
Still, he says having his daughters under his command gives him a unique perspective in his leadership of the Air Wing. "I always consider it an acid test," he said. "I've told several people this that, if I make a decision and we're going to be sending several people out I make it as if it would be my own kids. Guess what…it very well could be."
Sometimes the junior officers who serve alongside T.J. and Tracy don't realize they're related to the man in charge. But when they do, both women say it takes some time for them to be at ease and understand they don't tattle or pass on all they know. Colonel Davenport says it's a matter of professionalism. "Obviously our personal and family relationship, but we also have a professional relationship," he said. "I think you have to be adult enough to understand the difference between the two."
That professional relationship is still evolving. Tracy Davenport says she plans to learn to fly the C-130. When she does, she'll be one of the few women to fly the huge cargo plane for the Missouri Air National Guard - and the third Davenport in the family to earn pilot's wings.