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Removing obstacles

Zack Flanagan, Fort Dodge, Iowa National Guard

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
Sgt. Zack Flanagan, of the Iowa National Guard, said his career in the military has humbled him. Flanagan serves as a recruiter to help others accomplish what they want to in life.

One of the first days Sgt. Zack Flanagan, of the Iowa National Guard, was stationed in Afghanistan, he realized just how fortunate he was in his own life.

“I was up in the gunner turret and one of the things the last unit said was keep a lot of food in there because you will see a lot of kids,” Flanagan, of Fort Dodge, recalled.

As he crossed paths with some of the children in Tarin Kowt, Flanagan would give sports drinks and protein bars to them.

“Being able to throw a Gatorade or a Clif Bar out to those kids — it makes their entire year,” Flanagan said. “They were extremely overjoyed.”

Flanagan, a 2011 graduate of Humboldt High School, joined the National Guard in 2010 at the age of 17. He spent about seven months in Afghanistan in 2013.

“You would see homes just made out of mud or clay over there,” Flanagan said. “Or whatever they could find. Families in vehicles — they make do over there. They make do with what they have. And those people are generally happy most of the time.”

Flanagan hadn’t always planned on joining the military, but when he decided to go for it, he was determined to make it a success.

“I went into the recruiter’s office as a junior,” Flanagan said. “I enlisted in May of 2010 and went full bore.”

He added, “I liked the idea of serving, but I also liked the ability to be rooted in a community.”

In 2011, Flanagan took his basic training in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

Following that, he went into his advanced individual training.

“I went through the combat engineer school,” Flanagan said. “We learned how to navigate mine fields, worked a lot of demolition.”

He added, “An engineer’s job is to be able to remove obstacles or build obstacles.”

While in training, Flanagan feared he was missing out on making other memories with his classmates in high school.

But he soon realized, he was where he needed to be.

“I made it back (from training) right before senior prom,” Flanagan said. “One of the things you worry about is what you will miss. Well, when I left and came back I realized I didn’t miss much of anything. But I realized there wasn’t many others in my grade who got to fly in a Black Hawk (helicopter) or be able to shoot a rocket launcher. I got to work with C4. It was cool to have those life experiences.”

Prior to enlisting in the National Guard, Flanagan spent time working at Dairy Queen and Hy-Vee in Humboldt.

“The only job experience I had was dropping chicken strips at DQ or stocking shelves at Hy-Vee and in my training I was able to learn how to use demolition and navigate mine fields using a knife. To be 17 and have that kind of experience and be given those responsibilities, to me that was pretty awesome.”

After high school, Flanagan attended Iowa Central Community College for about a year, studying in the college’s engineering design program.

Through the National Guard, he eventually deployed to Afghanistan. Flanagan was mobilized to Fort Bliss, Texas, before flying to Ireland and then onto Kyrgyzstan before landing in Afghanistan in the spring of 2013.

“It’s (Afghanistan) one of the most beautiful countries I have ever seen,” Flanagan said. “That was probably one of the best experiences I have had in my life because it makes me appreciate what we have here. Problems that we have or things we see as problems, didn’t seem so big over there when you see how people live.”

While there, Flanagan’s unit was responsible for route clearance.

“We looked for IEDs and made sure roadways were clear not only for military, but for civilians as well,” Flanagan said.

Flanagan returned home to Iowa in November 2013, just before Thanksgiving.

Soon after, he was promoted to sergeant and was a team leader in a combat engineering company.

Then in June 2014, Flanagan received a text message from a recruiter in Fort Dodge.

Flanagan was asked if he would be interested in being a recruiter himself.

“At first I said no,” Flanagan recalled. “I still looked at recruiters the same way I did in high school, like they just wanted to send us off. But I didn’t know how hard recruiters really work.”

Much like when Flanagan first joined the National Guard, he decided to take the opportunity presented to him.

“If an opportunity comes to you you just have to jump for it and see what happens,” Flanagan said.

Since becoming a recruiter, Flanagan has enjoyed helping others find out what they want to accomplish and helping them achieve it.

“I work with teachers, coaches — I spent a year at Arizona, recruiting at Arizona State University,” Flanagan said. “That’s something I never thought I would be doing.”

He added, “There’s a lot of things from taking my path in the military I never thought I’d be able to do.”

Coming back to Fort Dodge has been a pleasure.

“That’s probably been the best part,” Flanagan said. “Trying to help students take advantage of what I did and do it in the same stomping grounds I came from. Just like teachers helped me to get where I needed to be now I can help teachers and help students get to where they want to be.”

It’s not easy, sometimes.

“Recruiting is one of the only jobs in the world where you can give 200 percent and still come up short,” Flanagan said. “The truth is you can’t make anyone join the military. It’s always going to be their decision. The best thing I can do is tell them about the National Guard and some of the benefits and if they have worries, help them navigate those.”

Flanagan said seeing others accomplish what they set out to do is a highlight of the job.

“When you put someone in the National Guard, a lot of the times they are a young person right out of high school trying to figure their way in the world,” Flanagan said. “To see them come out through their training a more refined person and see them go and accomplish things is special.”