Athens Review, Athens, Texas

November 10, 2010

‘I have the honor of helping people’

After Iraq deployment, ETMC Athens employee promoted to commander in Nat’l Guard

Toni Garrard Clay
The Athens Review

ATHENS — Will Conley is a man marked for leadership. His friends in Henderson County know him as the lead technologist in ETMC Athens’ nuclear medicine department.

His fellow soldiers know him as Lt. Col. Will Conley, commander of the National Guard’s 527th Engineer Battalion.

He assumed the command position this past August during a ceremony at historic Jackson Barracks in New Orleans.

“This is quite an honor and very humbling,” said Conley. “It’s a privilege to serve the 527th, which is the premier battalion in Louisiana. Our motto is ‘Anything, Anytime, Anywhere,’ and that’s the truth.”

Conley joined the Louisiana Army National Guard right out of high school, and has spent time serving both in the infantry and combat engineers ever since.

As any member of the National Guard these days can attest, the image of the “weekend warrior” is a thing of the past. Regular Army battalions are routinely combined with National Guard companies on deployments.

“You hear that one-weekend-a-month thing, but that hasn’t been true for a long time,” said Conley.

In December, 2008, Conley deployed to Iraq as a major in the 225th Engineer Brigade out of Louisiana, having received special training in intelligence gathering and electronic warfare. The main mission of his brigade was to clear the route sites of improvised explosive devices, or IED’s.

Conley served in Iraq for 12 months, returning in late November, 2009 to his family and his job at ETMC Athens. Upon his return, he was quickly promoted to lieutenant colonel, assuming the position of operations officer for the 225th.

That role meant he had the responsibility of controlling the entire brigade’s operational activity. He oversaw units deployed in Germany, Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan and even Louisiana, in support of Operation Deepwater Horizon, as part of British Petroleum’s oil spill clean-up effort.

It was a position he expected to hold for two years. But after six months, he was tapped for battalion commander.

“We certainly admire Will’s service to our country, and there’s no doubt he’s deserving of this promotion,” said ETMC Administrator Pat Wallace. “As an employer, we support not only Will, but any and all of our team members who serve in the military.”

The change-of-command ceremony for Conley was a straightforward but meaningful affair. It was the first such ceremony at Jackson Barracks since a post-Katrina renovation, and Gov. Rick Perry sent Conley his congratulations.

“I recognize and admire your patriotism and leadership,” wrote the governor. “You have followed in the footsteps of so many Texans who have selflessly served their country, and I am proud you call the Lone Star State home.”

As commander of the 527th Engineer Battalion, the buck stops with Conley when it comes to the function of the unit. He is in charge of operations, logistics and administrative duties. He knows at least one of his units, the 1022nd Engineer Company, will be deployed to Afghanistan in the next year.

“Engineers are needed over there, and there are more engineers in the National Guard,” said Conley.

Conley brings plenty of experience to his new position. His combat-heavy engineering battalion spent 12 months, from 2004 to 2005, in Afghanistan as Part of Operation Enduring Freedom.

There, they converted a 95-mile path from Kandahar to Tarin Kowt into a full-fledged road, despite temperatures that soared to around 140 degrees, and occasional rocket attacks on their tent compound.

Following that deployment, Conley was home less than three months when his National Guard unit was re-activated to help prepare for the approaching hurricane Katrina.

As it turned out, his battalion was one of the first units assisting on the initial repair work to the levee system in New Orleans. Afterward, he remained stateside for three years, until his recent 12-month tour in Iraq.

Compared to his time in Afghanistan, Conley described Iraq as more comfortable – citing running water and a room with air conditioning – but more dangerous.

“There are a lot of IED’s in Iraq, a lot of RKG attacks,” he said. RKG-3 grenades are used to attack armored vehicles. “The comforts are better than what we experienced in Afghanistan, but the risks were greater.”

Conley said, for now, it doesn’t look as though he’ll be re-deploying for the next couple of years.

“But that could change,” he said, “and if it happens, that’s OK. I’m fortunate in that no matter what uniform I wear, military or ETMC scrubs, I have the distinct honor of being able to help people.  I hope that never changes.”