Retired general shaped by 30 years in the Army
MIDDLEBURY — Brian Carpenter, 53, was first interested in the military as a way to get a college degree without being too encumbered by debt. What grew out of that was a very successful career in the Army and the National Guard and a life dedicated to service.
The Middlebury native, who owns and runs farm equipment dealership Champlain Valley Equipment in his hometown, served 30 years in the Army and Army National Guard, and retired a year ago as the second in command of Guard forces in Vermont and with the rank of general.
With Veterans Day upon us, Carpenter reflected back on his three decades of service in the armed forces and how it has shaped him.
“When I first went into the military I didn’t have a sense for how much it takes to keep our country strong and free,” Carpenter said in the Exchange Street office of Champlain Valley Equipment. But he, and the public at large, have grown.
“In recent years when you walked down the street in a uniform people would thank you for your service,” he said. “People are strong in their understanding of why we need service in the military.”
As a young man, Carpenter was considering his options for after his 1980 graduation from Middlebury Union High School when his football coach and mentor Hubie Wagner encouraged him to enroll in a service academy. Carpenter wasn’t sure it was right for him.
“Compared to the liberal atmosphere of the Middlebury area, it just seemed too rigid,” he recalled. “The recruiter I was working with said the Army gives as many full rides to the college of your choice as to service academies, so I explored that option.”
Carpenter was offered a full-ride ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) scholarship at St. Lawrence University in exchange for four years of military service after he graduated. He accepted and went on to appreciate many parts of the military, including the camaraderie involved in daily service and the opportunity to see others develop confidence and take leadership roles.
As an officer, Carpenter did two tours of duty in Germany, and one in Panama, during nine years in the regular Army.
After he left the full-time service in 1993, Carpenter signed on to the Vermont Army National Guard, where he continued to service is country, but his roles changed and grew.
Some of the more interesting work he did centered around the Vermont Guard’s special relationships with the small European nation of Macedonia (which became independent from the former Yugoslavia in 1991) and with the West African Republic of Senegal. This came under the auspice of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program.
“Vermont is one of the only states where the National Guard worked with two countries,” Carpenter said.
Some of the work was as a military adviser (like helping foster the growth of Macedonia’s air force from a few Piper Cub propeller airplanes to more sophisticated helicopters and rotary-winged aircraft), though it grew beyond that.
“We expanded their use of democracy,” Carpenter said. “It starts out military to military then military to civilian.
“I went over, with my experience in agriculture, on improving their ability to export.”
He also worked on linking Vermont civilians to civilian leaders in Macedonia and Senegal. For instance, the Guard facilitated visits by doctors from Fletcher Allen Health Care to teach them how to use some medical equipment, and visits by the Burlington fire chief to work with Macedonian officials on emergency response plans.
“We’re building capacity for the country and help them modernize,” Carpenter said. “We weren’t trying to force feed anything, we were trying to facilitate.
“We had a lot of contact with the State Department and (U.S. Agency for International Development) … we were working with a lot of non-governmental organizations within the country that have similar missions.”
“Sometimes I was in a business suit,” Carpenter said. “It depends on what you were trying to achieve.”
Carpenter saw his responsibilities expand in new ways.
“As you were moved up the chain you were tasked with a lot of things you didn’t think you would be as a young lieutenant,” he said.
Carpenter earned his star as a brigadier general and in June 2011 was named the Assistant Adjutant General for Vermont, which meant he was the commander of the Vermont Army National Guard. He oversaw the roughly 3,000 personnel in the Guard and was responsible for equipment, recruiting, training and preparing units for missions both domestic and abroad.
“The hardest part was when our units were deployed and we had to bury one of our soldiers,” he said. “To say goodbye and meet with their families was always incredibly difficult.”
SERVING CLOSER TO HOME
He felt the most rewarding experience in the military was his role in aiding those affected by Tropical Storm Irene. The massive storm in August 2011 dumped more than two feet of rain on Vermont in a short amount of time. Roads, bridges and whole buildings were washed away; four Vermonters lost their lives.
It was only a few months after he had become Assistant Adjutant General that Carpenter was tasked with heading up the Army Guard’s rebuilding efforts.
“Vermont was devastated and we did a lot in helping the state recover from that,” Carpenter recalled.
Five Vermont Guard units deployed personnel to numerous Vermont locations where they helped state and municipal highway crews rebuild both local and state roadways. At the time, Gov. Shumlin praised the Guard specifically for rebuilding Route 131 and Davis Road in Cavendish, Route 9 near Marlboro, Route 100 around Wardsboro, and parts of Pike Falls and Turkey Mountain roads in Jamaica where the road was washed away, among other services.
“We hoped to make the residents of the townships that were heavily impacted feel like someone cared and was trying to recreate a life for them,” Carpenter said.
He recalls those days as requiring a large time commitment.
“It was always a lot of hours … You don’t do it for the money,” Carpenter said.
It also required him to shift a lot of his attention from his business to the Guard work. “Everyone was understanding,” he said of his colleagues at Champlain Valley Equipment.
As a general, Carpenter was working for the Guard an average of 20 hours per week plus six weeks of active duty in the summer. He said that back in ’93 it started as just one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer, but the commitment just kept getting longer.
“We have a saying, ‘It’s not just the service member who serves, it’s the family who serves,’” Carpenter said.
He credits his wife, Nanette, and his children, Olivia (a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of New England) and Spencer (a 16-year-old junior at MUHS), for doing their part to make his service in the military possible.
“The biggest transition (since retiring in September 2014) was having time on the weekends with my family,” Carpenter said.
Now a veteran, Carpenter has translated the skills he acquired in the military to his job as the owner of Champlain Valley Equipment, which has five Vermont locations.
“The biggest skill I learned that translated to business is delegation,” Carpenter said. “You have to realize that you can’t do anything yourself and learn to trust the team you put together. In the military, you create teams using the strength of each person and that’s what I attempt to do here.”
Although he has now retired from the Guard, Carpenter is far from idle. When he is not busy managing his business, he offers his time to further serve the town by becoming involved in the local government. It seems that Carpenter is always willing and ready to serve when duty calls. When the town was divided over the future of the town offices, he decided to take action.
“It seemed to me that the town was starting to come unglued and I couldn’t criticize it without being active in it.”
So in 2014 he decided to run for selectboard and won. He will be serving until 2017 and, unsurprisingly, says it is going well so far.
“I’ve enjoyed doing it; it’s been a lot of fun,” he said.
CHANGES IN THE ARMY
Carpenter has seen changes in the Army during his career; one notable one is the relationship internally between members in different parts of the service. He touched on the shift in attitudes toward those in the Guard and Army Reserve as opposed to soldiers in active combat. Carpenter’s perspective is from both sides as he served in active duty for nine years before joining the National Guard.
MIDDLEBURY NATIVE BRIAN Carpenter and his wife, Nanette, meet with First Lady Michelle Obama at a ceremony when he received his brigadier general’s star in 2011.
“The Guard and Reserves were typically looked down upon back in the 1980s and early 1990s,” he said. “There was a lot of tension between the different sections of the service.”
However, after the first Iraq war, known as Operation Desert Storm, in 1991, the Guard and Reserve forces were acutely aware of the possibility of being called upon, and the government allocated more resources toward equipping and modernizing those sectors of the military.
The differences between units seemed even less significant in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“During the aftermath of 9/11, we had guard units going out the door with similar equipment to those in active duty and they were serving side by side. You couldn’t tell which unit was which unless you recognized the patch on the sleeve,” Carpenter said.
“The Guard earned a lot of respect for their service during this time as well as in Iraqi Freedom (the Iraq war that began in 2003) and Enduring Freedom (the war in Afghanistan). I would say that we have never had all branches as strong as they are today.”
Editor’s note: Brianna McKinley is a senior at Saint Michael’s College and an intern for the Addison Independent.
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