WV Press Association Staff
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – “There’s nothing like going out in the morning and picking up your paper. Just the smell of it, the feel of it, getting that black ink on your hands – there’s nothing better that getting a cup of coffee, kicking back, and reading the paper.”
Major General Bill Crane, adjutant general of the W.Va. National Guard, shared that comment with a room of newspaper representatives at the recent WV Press Association Convention in Charleston. Crane appeared as part of an educational-session which provided updates regarding the Guard’s service activities and recruitment efforts.
“It’s a real honor to have been selected to command the National Guard,” Crane said. “We have 6,500 incredible members. Every time the governor, or the country, asks, we stand up and we do the mission.”
In addition to expressing his appreciation for the service-women and men under his command, Crane also credited the media with helping to preserve democracy.
“They talk about the press being the fourth-estate, and I believe that,” Crane added. “You help us with the balance of power and anti-corruption. You are the ones who find those stories and start pulling on threads that some of us may not want you to pull on. The thing I like about the newspaper in particular is that it’s not a sound byte. You get the sources, you dig deeper, and you write more detail. I really appreciate that, and our democracy depends on an independent press. You’re the keepers of that torch.”
As Crane explained, the Guard’s 6,500 service members are stationed not only throughout West Virginia, but all over the world. The W.Va. National Guard also engages in “military-to-military exchanges” with both Peru and Qatar.
“I was in Warsaw (Poland) for a little while to talk to some folks about an exercise we do in West Virginia called the ‘irregular warfare exercise,’” Crane said. “We brought 16 different nations here (to West Virginia) to teach them how to do irregular warfare, which is the stuff that’s going on in Ukraine against the Russians.”
“We do a lot of heavy lifting in West Virginia for such a small state and small Guard,” Crane added.
According to Crane, while the ranks of the state’s Air National Guard are “over 100% strength,” the Army National Guard side is currently at “about 95% strength.” The mission to bolster the ranks of both sides of the Guard is being led by Public Affairs Specialist Edwin “Bo” Wriston.
A Navy-veteran and native of Wirt County, Wriston joined the W.Va. National Guard in 2018 as a civilian-employee.
“I never had any idea how much the Guard actually does, and what all it touches,” Wriston said of his impression after joining, before explaining that the National Guard has a direct economic impact on West Virginia of more than $369 million annually.
“When we take in indirect functionalities as well, that’s over $500 million,” Wriston added. “That’s over half-a-billion dollars coming into the state. In 2021, for every dollar that the state spent on the National Guard, we received $16 in federal funding.”
Wriston noted that federal support has since increased, bringing the funding ratio to a reimbursement-rate of $20 for every $1 West Virginia spends.
“Very, very big bang for the buck on what we cost the state versus what we contribute,” Wriston said.
Wriston spoke briefly about the West Virginia Starbase Academy – an educational program designed “primarily for fifth graders.”
“The program happens in Charleston and Martinsburg,” Wriston explained. “It’s all STEM-related (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) instruction. The kids come on base. They get to work with robotics and different STEM-type functionalities.”
Regarding the Mountaineer Challenge Academy – a “quasi-military” residential program designed to give troubled teens a second chance at basic education – Wrsiton said, “We have close to 6,000 graduates now.”
“(Mountaineer Challenge Academy) gives youths who are potentially not having a great time in high school an education not only in schooling, but in life skills and things of that nature, as well,” Wriston explained.
Master Sergeant Casey Reed, recruiting flight chief with the W.Va. Air National Guard, and Sergeant Zach Gayhart, recruiter with the Army National Guard, then spoke briefly about the Guard’s recruitment efforts.
“A lot of the reasons that we serve are the benefits,” Reed said. “We tell everybody to take advantage of them. The $9,000 per year in tuition assistance, as well as the low-cost medical insurance.”
“With the Guard, you can get your school paid for while also building your resume,” Reed added. “When you graduate, you’re debt free, and you have a good looking resume. You can develop a skill-set such as HVAC, welding, or plumbing – it just depends on what job you go into.”
Gayhart noted that “23% of youth are eligible for military enlistment without a waiver.”
Gayhart explained that a waiver is required under various circumstances, such as a medical condition or previous negative interaction with law enforcement, before adding that, “Only 12% of overall youth in this population is designated as fully qualified.”
“The biggest thing that we’re trying to do is get into communities, and speak about the benefits and reach everybody that we can,” Gayhart said.
The WV Press Association’s 2023 Convention took place at Charleston’s Four Points by Sheraton, from Aug. 11 to 12. The convention was made possible through the sponsorship of the W.Va. School of Osteopathic Medicine, GameChanger, AARP of West Virginia, WVU University Relations, the WVPA Foundation, New River Gorge Regional Development Authority, W.Va. Hive, Highmark, BHE Renewables, City National Bank, W.Va. Department of Tourism, CAMC/Vandalia Health, ONE – Our Next Energy, WV Nursery and Landscaping Association, Asher Agency, the Associated Press, and Affiliated Construction Trades of West Virginia.
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