A National Guardsman’s surprising journey to Iraq and Pentagon accolades
(Note: This story first appeared on Defense Department websites in 2016).
Ryan Anderson struck a deal with his wife. She would support his decision to join the military, but only if he could get in on that “one-weekend-a-month” deal and pursue something in human resources. In other words, she wanted him safe and around the house. So Anderson joined the California National Guard.
An idealistic soul with a military family heritage, Anderson was ecstatic. Not only would he be able to fulfill his longing to “do my part,” but he’d chosen a path with little risk for deployment, ensuring peace at home.
“You won’t even realize I’m gone,” Anderson remembers telling his wife.
After completing Army boot camp and human resources training in 2006, Anderson returned to California and began fulfilling his weekend duty at Joint Force Headquarters in Sacramento. Though the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan raged on, they seemed remote possibilities given Anderson’s assignment.
“My first duty was guarding the latrines during a urinalysis test,” said Anderson. “I think I stood at parade rest the entire time.”
It was only a few months, though, before Anderson learned the “weekend warrior” aura surrounding the National Guard was long extinct. Amid preparations for graduate studies at the University of California, Davis, he checked his Army e-mail only to learn he was headed to Iraq as a forward observer with the Cal Guard’s 1-143rd Field Artillery Battalion.
“Totally blindsided me,” Anderson said of the e-mail. “I started to blow up phones, trying to contact anyone and everyone. I hadn’t been trained as a forward observer.”
When Anderson finally made positive contact with leadership at the 1-143rd, the response was hardly comforting: “Son, you’re going to Iraq to kick in doors!”
It wasn’t long, however, before the idealism that led Anderson to enlist transformed into the character that made him a leader. Reawakened to the foot soldier roots of the Army calling, Anderson poured himself into the deployment, rising to the rank of corporal and team leader.
“I got plugged in with the unit and the camaraderie really took off,” said Anderson. “I refocused on why I signed up to do this.”
Anderson continued to excel at all facets of soldiering during his yearlong deployment to Camp Taji from 2007-08, including placing as runner-up in a base-wide Soldier of the Year competition and at least one close call that yielded a Combat Action Badge. As the deployment waned, however, his passion for boots-on-the-ground soldiering reignited his commitment to the human resources field.
“Being overseas is what really gave me a heart to work in the human resources arena,” said Anderson. “I saw what a difference it can make in a soldier’s life, having all the correct documentation. It’s such a force multiplier for soldiers [and] increases their joy in serving.”
Back in the States, Anderson took his leadership to another level in 2013 when he joined the warrant officer ranks. Aside from graduating on the Commandant’s List from the Adjutant General Branch Officer Basic Course at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, Anderson also earned the Excellence in Physical Fitness Leadership Award and attended the Army Basic Instructor, Equal Opportunity Leader and Lean Six Sigma Green Belt courses. When it came to professional development, Anderson was “all in.”
Today, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Anderson is back at Joint Force Headquarters, serving full-time as the California Army National Guard’s Human Resources (HR) Systems Branch chief. He now leads a team that has transformed the California Army National Guard’s HR section. Whereas the section previously placed near the bottom of national HR indicators, the National Guard Bureau now recognizes it as one of the highest-performing among the nation’s 54 states and territories.
“When I found out I was deploying, my wife and I were literally hung up on by people, we would be transferred multiple times,” Anderson said of his own challenges in navigating administrative bureaucracies. “I’ve carried that over to today, just the idea of customer service. That soldier out in the field, they have no idea even where to start. … We need to be that voice for soldiers who don’t have one, to be an advocate in their corner.”
On June 1, 2016, the Army recognized Anderson’s dedication to soldier care at the Pentagon by presenting him with the MacArthur Leadership Award, bestowed each year to a handful of company-grade commissioned and warrant officers from each of the Army’s components. The criteria for recognition? Commitment to the ideals of the award’s namesake, Gen. Douglas MacArthur – duty, honor, country.
“I was humbled and absolutely blown away,” Anderson said of learning about the MacArthur Award. “The job can kind of be a thankless job, and my team and I, we do what we do each day because we want to take care of people that take care of soldiers. … Even if it’s not in our lane, we will find the person whose lane it’s in.”
Coincidentally, Anderson’s great-grandfather on his mother’s side served under MacArthur in the Pacific theater during World War II. A Sep. 10, 1944, edition of The Sunday Oregonian reported that Capt. John George, a “longtime National Guardsman” from Salem, Oregon, was a crack shot and a “particular thorn” in the enemy’s side, felling with his rifle one Japanese soldier who stood 6 foot 4 inches.
Though Anderson enjoys a rich military ancestry, his greatest leadership example, he said, might have come from outside the military. Before joining the Cal Guard, Anderson volunteered with inner-city youth programs led by Don Brewster, a Sacramento-area humanitarian who has since launched a non-profit that aids sex-trafficking victims across the world.
“He’s a great example of being a servant-leader, giving a voice to those who don’t have a voice,” Anderson said of Brewster. “He is a great mixture of compassion and the business mindset, something I’ve tried to carry over to the military, as well.”
But the highest accolades, said Anderson, belong to Angela, the wife with whom he struck that deal about 10 years ago.
“As with all military families, the spouses and families have the tougher job,” said Anderson, a father of two young children. “We go off and do the job we’ve been trained for, which 9 times out of 10 is what we love to do, but they have to keep going with half their strength. … I wouldn’t be able to do what I do if it wasn’t for her.”