RICHMOND, Va. –
First Sgt. Brian Wright’s career in the Virginia National Guard’s Counterdrug Program started with a 75-day order that started July 23, 2001. He was a sergeant then, with about a decade of service in a handful of units across the state. He’d spotted a listing for a budget analyst at his armory and figured it might be an interesting opportunity. Twenty years later, he’s the senior enlisted advisor for the program, has served under 11 Counterdrug coordinators and established himself as a competent, reliable source of continuity and expertise.
“He’s a subject matter expert, and not just here in Virginia, but he’s looked at as a subject matter expert at the National Guard Bureau level,” said Col. William X. Taylor, state aviation officer for the Virginia National Guard and a former CD coordinator. “He’s one that follows standards and pushes people to be their best. He’s very loyal, very well-respected, people look up to him. He’s the go-to person and he takes care of people.”
Before joining the Virginia National Guard, before becoming a staple of Virginia’s CD Program, before all of that, Wright knew he wanted to serve in the military. He wasn’t sure what the best option for him was, but after a few friends joined the National Guard, Wright figured he’d give it a try too, see if he liked it. That was 1986 and Wright enlisted as a 93P, an aviation operations specialist.
“I was there at the 29th Combat Aviation Company,” Wright said. “That was before the first Black Hawk, we actually had two units and we shared the same Huey helicopter, we were on alternating drill weekends.”
Eventually, he became the first flight operations specialist to serve in a new arrow scout detachment that flew OH-6 Cayuses, commonly called Loaches. Then, after his six-year enlistment was up, Wright left the National Guard. But only for six months. He came back in, bounced around a few units and completed a three-year enlistment term and then got out again. Maybe, he thought, he was done with the National Guard.
Five years later, Wright was back in, this time serving with the field artillery in Petersburg, which is where his entry into the Counterdrug world first began.
“This is back when they used to put the job postings on a clipboard on the drill floor,” Wright said. He saw the budget analyst job and before applying, called a friend who was already working with CD to learn more about the program. Wright soon learned that the CD coordinator at the time was an officer he’d served with years before in the scout detachment. He got the job.
“I didn’t really know what I was embarking on,” Wright said. “But a 75-day order has become 20 years.”
Since then, Wright’s orders have been extended time and time again.
Retired Col. Neal Edmonds, a former CD coordinator and the VNG’s current director of human resources, remembers meeting Wright in the early days of his CD career.
“His assigned role was as the budget NCO for the CD Task Force, but what I quickly learned with Brian was that he did everything,” said Edmonds, who served as the operations officer for CD when he first got to know Wright. “What I quickly learned is to ask his advice on things and then to listen to him.”
Eventually, after his time as a battalion commander, Edmonds came back as the CD coordinator. By then, Wright was there as the noncommissioned officer-in-charge.
“He fit right back in that same role as trusted advisor,” Edmonds explained. He said Wright knew everything there was to know about CD, which allowed Edmonds to more easily settle into his new leadership role.
By this point, Wright’s responsibilities and sphere of influence had expanded. He wasn’t just managing the budget; he was also working as an analyst. In CD, criminal analysts partner with local, state and federal agencies to assist with investigations.
“Basically, you’re there to help connect the dots on the criminal cases that are taking place,” Wright said, explaining that CD analysts bring a unique set of skills gained from their civilian and military careers to assist law enforcement.
After more than 20 years in CD, Wright says he’s worked with a huge number of local, state and federal agencies, including Virginia State Police, the FBI and the ATF.
“Almost every federal agency and I think there’s something like 320 police departments in Virginia and we’ve probably supported 150 of them,” he said.
In his role as an analyst, Wright saw first-hand how much impact the program had on the community, especially in ways that weren’t and couldn’t be talked about.
“I have to say this mission is probably the most unknown in the Guard, 100 percent, and in the community, too,” Wright said. “But I believe this is that one mission that the Guard does that is actually affecting communities every day.”
In 2010, Wright and other members of the CD team, to include aviation assets, were called in to assist with a situation in Appomattox, Virginia. A man was on the run after fatally shooting eight people and firing on a VSP helicopter. Wright watched as video downlink from the CD aircraft displayed the area where the shooter was hiding. In an open area, he saw something, some sort of light signature, but wasn’t sure what it was or what was causing it. He continued to watch, to look for signs of movement or life and eventually packed it in for a few brief hours of rest. The next morning, just before coming back on duty, they learned the shooter had surrendered and was in police custody. Wright was there when they brought him in.
“I’ll never forget it, I’ve never seen anybody that had that look before,” he said. “It wasn’t a deer in the headlights stare, it wasn’t a 1,000-yard stare; there was no soul there, that’s the only way I can describe it.”
When they asked the man why he gave himself up, he cited the helicopter, the one with video downlink Wright had been watching. The shooter knew he was caught. The bit of light Wright had seen on the camera was the shooter, hidden in a bunker covered with thermal blankets.
“That was just one of the bigger [cases], there’s been multiple just one-day type support missions in conjunction with the aircraft,” Wright said. “There’s been some pretty significant long-term cases that I’ve worked on that had some really powerful results.”
Edmonds remembered Wright using social media to help crack a massive drug ring.
“He was never recognized officially because he couldn’t be, but he was the guy and it just cemented in my mind how good he was at everything he did,” Edmonds said.
While Wright’s full-time job remained with CD over the last two decades, he’s spent his traditional National Guard time – usually one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer for annual training – at a variety of units across the state. Most recently, he found himself back in the state’s aviation battalion, now 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation Regiment, with a little help from Taylor, who met Wright when he was serving as the CD coordinator.
“Brian Wright brings skills from the outside and CD with him back into the Guard,” Taylor said. “I recruited him back to aviation because I knew what he was like over in Counterdrug. He’s very strong as a leader, and I knew he’d be a great mentor to develop future NCOs within aviation.”
Currently, in addition to his responsibilities at CD, Wright serves as the first sergeant for Bravo Company, 2-224th Aviation, and is preparing his Soldiers for an overseas deployment to Kosovo. Wright and his Soldiers will be among the approximately 140 Soldiers from 2-224th who will serve as the aviation task force for the NATO-led Kosovo Force Regional Command-East. The deployment is likely to be one of Wright’s final Army adventures as he moves close to retirement after more than 30 years of service.
“He’s always looking out for the Soldier,” Taylor said. “He loves to teach, loves to train people and he just makes everything better wherever he goes. When it comes to aviation, he makes us better, when it comes to Counterdrug, he makes them better, too.”
On what comes next, Wright is cagey. Maybe he’ll leverage some of the relationships he’s built in Counterdrug into a full-time civilian position. Maybe he’ll write book. Maybe he’ll do something else entirely.
“He’s done an outstanding job and I’m sure he will excel at whatever he does next,” Taylor said.
Looking back on his time in CD, Wright is thankful. He’s one of the longest-serving CD Soldiers in the nation with a mountain of stories and experiences. He’s earned the respect of all the CD coordinators he’s served with and distinguished himself as not only as subject matter expert, but as a top-notch leader and Soldier.
“Being with the program and all the roles I’ve had in the Guard, I just think it all allowed me to be a better version of myself,” Wright said.