A civilian in peace, a soldier in war.

That motto has been inspiring citizens from across the commonwealth to join the Pennsylvania National Guard for the last two and a half centuries. This state's proud guard tradition spans from the Revolutionary War to modern-day conflicts in the Persian Gulf and Middle East. The largest unit of the guard, the famed 28th Infantry Division, is recognized as the oldest division in the army, having been founded in 1879.

Local guard units based in Lehighton and Hometown have long been an integral part of the state's impressive National Guard tradition.

This week, the state National Guard recognized six of its own for showing outstanding leadership skills during 2009. The leadership of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard chose Airman Monica Erlick of Pittsburgh as the Airman of the Year; Tech. Sgt. Thomas Cloonan, also of Pittsburgh, as the Noncommissioned Officer of the Year; and Senior Master Sgt. Scott Ball of Campbelltown, as the Noncommissioned Senior Officer of the Year.

Impressively, after searching through the ranks of 13,400 enlisted soldiers, the recipients for Soldier of the Year, Noncommissioned Officer of the Year, and Lt. Gen. Milton G. Baker Noncommissioned Officer Leadership Award all came from northeastern Pa. The three are members of the 55th Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 28th Infantry Division, in Scranton.

In fact, the Pennsylvania Army National Guard Soldier of the Year is Spc. Jonathan D. Hontz, 23 of White Haven. Sgt. Raymond Naperkowski, his team leader at Headquarters Battery, 1st Battalion, 109th Field Artillery in Scranton, describes Hontz as an outstanding soldier who's "always willing to step up and do the job."

Also a student at Luzerne County Community College, Hontz said he chose to be a combat medic because he was interested in the medical profession. He was also was inspired by his family's strong link to military service. His great-grandfather, grandfather and uncle all served.

"I guess I joined because I wanted to be like them," Hontz said on being named the recipient of one of the guard's most prestigious honors.

Staff Sgt. Joseph S. Parsons, 30, of Wapwallopen, was selected as the Army National Guard's Noncommissioned Officer of the Year. A graduate of Crestwood High School in Mountain Top and a student at Kings College, he joined the National Guard after serving nearly six years with the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky.

Sgt. Adam R. Wendoloski, 31, of Wilkes-Barre, a member of Company A, 3rd Battalion, 103rd Armor, Sunbury, was named recipient of the Lt. Gen. Milton G. Baker Noncommissioned Officer Leadership Award, which is based on a series of evaluation boards similar to those for the Soldier of the Year honor. The award is named in honor of the founder of the Valley Forge Military Academy, who enlisted in the Army during World War I and served in the Army National Guard from 1921 to 1946.

Brig. Gen. Jerry Beck Jr., deputy adjutant general of the Army Pennsylvania National Guard, stated that being singled out from among the elite teams in the state is indeed special.

"To stand out as one of the best – in one of the largest enlisted forces in the National Guard – is a great accomplishment," Gen. Beck said.

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com [1]