SALEM, Ore. -- A fleet of HH-60M Black Hawk helicopters are positioned at the Salem Army Aviation Support Facility, ready to respond to any number of contingencies throughout the state. Whether it is fighting fires, or responding to missing hikers, or preparing for overseas missions, Sgt. 1st Class Zachary Pickett knows first hand that readiness is essential to the mission.

For more than 18 years, Pickett has held a number of jobs working full time with the Oregon Army National Guard, starting first with the 2nd Battalion, 641st Aviation Regiment, flying in a Black Hawk as a medic. Along the way, he has worked in finance at Joint Force Headquarters and currently as a readiness noncommissioned officer assigned to Alpha Company, 1249th Engineer Battalion.

"It's kept me prepared as a leader, to manage different programs and people," he said, detailing some of the diverse positions he has held. "The experiences have allowed me to take on new challenges, grow in my military career, yet also reinforced my desire to finish my college degree."

With the challenges of military life and off-duty activities like coaching his kids' sports teams, Pickett is almost finished with his health care administration and management degree online from Colorado State University (Global). His methodical approach, often taking one class at a time, has gotten him close to the finish line.

"I have about 10 more classes or about 18 months left to complete my degree," he said. "It's not been easy at times but I have great support at home and I've been able to hold a 3.8 GPA (grade point average) with this approach."

Part of Pickett's education plan is to combine and build on his military skill sets with his education goals, while also keeping an eye toward life after he retires from the National Guard. With years of experience in the field, his education strategy will reinforce his marketability when he's ready to hang up his boots.

I've watched my peers leave the military and having the education to fall back on became apparent," he said and credited the savings with the Federal Tuition Assistance Program while being a member of the Army National Guard. "It is an amazing benefit, where a class that might cost $1,000; I am paying only $195 of that (total)."

Describing some of the takeaways from the coursework, Pickett noted how going to school over this past four years has already made an impact. "It has definitely helped with management of personnel, defining leadership styles, and how to communicate effectively."

He also credits Ann Browning, the Oregon National Guard's education services specialist. The resources and experience she provided from day one "got the ball rolling," he said.

"She is by far, an expert in helping Soldiers navigate their options with programs and education benefits," he said. "Every question I had, she was able to assist and point me in the right direction."

INSPIRED TO LEARN, GIVING BACK

Navigating all the education options can be a big hurdle when getting started. With years of experience first as a full-time human resources (42A) Soldier, and using her own benefits concurrently, Browning's role now as a federal civilian technician is to assist Oregon Guardsmen in implementing the benefits they have earned.

"...Good ol' Uncle Sam, and using my G.I. Bill with tuition assistance paid for my education," said Browning, enthusiastically describing her own experience using education assistance. "I got my bachelor's degree (from Corban University) and turned around and finished my master's degree in teaching from Willamette University ... and left debt-free!"

By approaching education as a key benefit with military service, Browning is a passionate advocate for helping Soldiers use their financial assistance. She estimates that 300 to 400 Oregon Soldiers use tuition assistance each year going part- or full-time to school.

"Whether someone is an M-Day (drill status guardsman) or AGR (Active Guard-Reserve) Soldier, they can get up to 16 semester hours or 24 quarter hours a year paid for with tuition assistance," she explained.

However, for Air Guardsmen, she said only AGR's received this benefit, prior to the brand new state tuition assistance program passed by the Oregon legislature this year. With the new state tuition assistance program, all Oregon National Guard members can start targeting their education plans almost immediately this fall. There are plenty of questions service members are asking about the new program, but finally, all Oregon National Guardsmen will have a means to funding tuition if they have not qualified for federal benefits.

"It's a state-run program, so depending on the Soldier and what federal programs they have already qualified for will factor into state assistance," she said. "But that's why I want to help everyone take advantage of these benefits because some of them are only available while the member is still serving."

With retention being a fundamental factor for mission readiness, education benefits are the biggest part of the equation for keeping most Soldiers in uniform. Leadership plays a significant role as well, from encouraging a member to grow with education goals, to applying for commissioning opportunities or simply changing their military occupational specialty.

"You can throw all the money you want at someone but when they get disgruntled -- whether it is with their unit or job -- they end up getting out," Browning elaborated. "Members want some type of flexibility in their careers, it could be changing units or picking up a new MOS, but just like choosing a college major - Soldiers want choices."

SHIFTING GEARS, MOVING FORWARD

Sometimes having an option makes all the difference between staying in the Guard and getting out. When Spc. Tori Bazurto began her military career, it was through the Reserve Officers' Training Corps program at the University of Oregon.

"When I joined the ROTC program, I was a sophomore, so there weren't any more scholarships available," Bazurto said, recalling how she was able to pay for college while serving simultaneously in the Guard. "I really wanted to be medic but that was when women couldn't serve in Infantry units, so I took one of the few jobs available: a cook."

Enrolled in the heavy demands of pre-medical studies, working part time and keeping up with Guard commitments, Bazurto eventually decided to take a break from being a full-time student. She remained committed to her Guard decision and even though being a cook was not her first or even second choice, Bazurto served nearly six years with Company G, 141st Brigade Support Battalion (BSB). She sought opportunities to transfer to other job positions but her unit needed trained cooks.

"I got shut down at every turn," she said. "I was ready to walk until this new MOS opened up, and I am the only one in the state that has this job!"

When her enlistment contract was coming to an end, instead of getting out, she became a vision technician with Medical Command, Joint Force Headquarters.

"I absolutely love my job and my unit," she said. "Also, it helped me score my current job as an ophthalmic technician on the civilian side."

Finding that right niche not only keeps people motivated to serve but, for overall retention and readiness, it keeps trained Soldiers in uniform. In Bazurto's case, she was able to keep the big picture in sight during her first enlistment while she pursued her overall long-term goals. She is back in college part-time through the American Military University online.

"I stuck it out, and it does get better," she said revisiting her decision to reenlist. "There were so many benefits; the medical, dental, and with all the education assistance along the way, I haven't paid a dime (for college) and I'm almost done with my bachelor's degree."

A SENSE OF SERVICE, HIGHER CALLING

As much as education benefits or finding the right job are crucial factors in pursuing and staying in a military career, being part of something bigger than oneself resonates with many career Soldiers. Often this sense of service develops over the course of a career as training exercises, deployments, and unique missions mark a Soldier's life.

With more than 15 years of military service as a medic, Sgt. 1st Class Angel Payne can attest to the journey and challenges of a seasoned military career: from hurricane response operations to deploying to combat environments abroad.

"In 2005, I deployed in response to Hurricane Katrina with Charlie Company, 141st Brigade Support Battalion, and found myself in the middle of the 9th Ward of New Orleans," Payne said, recalling her atypical experience as a medic. "It's still hard to put into words the devastation we encountered."

Her team relied on their training and readiness that was put in place years before they arrived in the Big Easy. The search and rescue operations were only part of the undertakings. Payne said that side missions also kept them extremely involved in the overall recovery effort.

"We helped in restoring a local hospital, assisting in the early ongoing recovery efforts, then helped rescue abandoned animals that were left in shelters," she said.

Without missing a beat, three weeks later she was responding to Hurricane Rita, another Category 5 storm that hit the Texas coast. The two late summer Gulf of Mexico hurricanes claimed nearly 2,000 lives and tested the entire National Guard's ability to respond to major domestic disasters.

The lessons learned by Payne and other Oregon National Guardsmen would be called upon to support future Overseas Contingency Operations. In 2006, Payne was deployed for the first of her two assignments in Afghanistan. Working as a medical trainer with the Afghan Ministry of Defense, she was able to connect with and aid hundreds of local women and children.

"We were out in the community, helping train the Afghan military," Payne said. "The work was really tough but I felt like we made a difference on so many levels."

For her valiant efforts, she was awarded the Bronze Star and was the first female recipient of the Combat Medic Badge in the State of Oregon since the Vietnam War. She is quick to credit others for the opportunities, yet she reflects on a higher ethos for her years of commitment to the Oregon Army National Guard.

"My husband is also a member of the (Oregon Army National) Guard; it's our life," describing her approach regarding her military career. "I just couldn't imagine doing anything else and it simply comes down to a sense of service, pride and just wanting to help our fellow Soldiers."