RICHMOND, Va. –
Ever since he was a kid, Staff Sgt. Shane Williams knew he’d join the military. On his dad’s side, military service dates back all the way to the American Civil War. Since then, his family has served through every major U.S. conflict, excluding the Korean War, and almost everyone served in the U.S. Army. His grandfather was the only exception.
“He was Navy, but I don’t hold that against him,” Williams said.
At 21, Williams joined the U.S. Army as an 18X Special Forces Candidate. He completed his initial five-year contract and then talked to a National Guard recruiter. Originally from Warrenton, Virginia, Williams asked if there was anything near his hometown. As luck would have it, an infantry unit, Delta Company, 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, was based right there in Warrenton. Serving close to home proved as easy draw for Williams, who began phase two of his military career in the National Guard in 2015. Today, he’s part of the Virginia National Guard’s Recruiting and Retention Battalion and runs the Recruit Sustainment Program, or RSP, based out of Leesburg, Virginia.
“I absolutely love it,” Williams said of his role in the RSP. He explained that the program serves as a bridge for new National Guard Soldiers between their initial enlistment and the time they complete training. With locations all over the state, recruits spend one weekend a month with their area RSP preparing for the rigors of basic and advanced training, all while earning a paycheck.
How much time new Soldiers spend in the RSP depends on their training timeline. Whether it’s one weekend or 10, the focus is on teaching new recruits the basics of military service, while also ensuring they’re administratively and physically ready for training.
“It’s a great program and I think it’s a really good thing that the Guard has in place as opposed to the active duty component,” Williams said. “It encourages and motivates Soldiers far better than just having them enlist and just waiting until they ship.”
A typical RSP weekend starts early, with first formation at 8 a.m.
“A majority of the people who enlist are still in high school or are college age, so I compare it to waking up early for classes,” Williams said.
After formation, there’s usually some sort of physical training. Newer recruits complete the Occupational Physical Assessment Test, or OPAT, to ensure they meet the physical requirements for their chosen military occupational speciality. Williams said they also conduct Army Combat Fitness Test-based workouts as well, which enables the recruits to gain familiarity with the test. From there, the recruits are broken out by phase. Newer recruits in-process with Williams, while those shipping to basic or advanced training within 60 days are briefed on what to expect. Those Soldiers in White Phase, between their second and second-to-last drill, conduct training. Graduates of advanced training return for one last drill with the RSP, and share their first-hand experiences with their peers.
“They get to hear the good and the bad, wherever they’re going,” Williams said. “They get to see how the different posts differ from the others and what to expect in their MOS.”
Williams estimates he’s shipped nearly 300 recruits in the almost three years he’s worked at the RSP.
“I get to work with all types of kids and up here especially in this region, it stretches from Winchester all the way down to Culpeper and even up to D.C. and some of my kids even live in Maryland, or West Virginia,” Williams said. “There’s a lot of demographics up here. […] There’s been a spike in naturalization and citizenship requests.”
The road to citizenship and naturalization is one familiar to Williams. His mother is Korean, originally from Seoul, and met his father in what Williams calls a “traditional American Army love story,” meeting while his father was stationed in Korea. Growing up, Williams credited his mother with getting him to embrace and appreciate his Korean side. She pushed him to celebrate the culture through food, language, music and religion.
“I did Korean-based martial arts, learned piano, and all of that established some sort of discipline, accountability and responsibility,” Williams said.
Watching his mother’s experience growing up provides Williams with a higher level of understanding and empathy for his foreign-born recruits.
“It gives me a better perspective of someone who naturalizes here from Korea or another Asian country, or any country,” he said. “I’ve seen it first-hand, what it was like, the struggles involved.”
The path toward citizenship can be an expensive one, and Williams says he makes sure all his recruits seeking naturalization are armed with what they need to do so before they ship to training.
“I encourage them to at least get the naturalization piece taken care of at training and then file for citizenship after they come back,” Williams said, explaining that the National Guard provides those Soldiers with an opportunity to petition for naturalization while they’re at training. “If they don’t join, they have to pay hundreds of dollars just to become a citizen.”
For all of his recruits, Williams provides motivation for them to keep moving forward, no matter what their military career might throw at them.
“I try to help them understand, ‘Hey, you signed this commitment, honor it. Everyone enlists for a reason, so what’s yours?’”