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The Ultimate Classroom: Guard Soldier Turns Flood-Fighting Experience into College Credits 
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Sgt. Justin Valenti (right), Fargo, conveys important flood-fighting information to staff members in the Joint Task Force-East Operations Center on April 12, 2011, in Fargo. Valenti, along with Staff Sgt. Nick Suko (right), are contingency operators for JTF-E that manage and update information and technical data that help Guard leaders make important decisions in their battle against Mother Nature. (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class David Dodds)

FARGO, N.D. — Sgt. Justin Valenti has been pulling double duty as a college student and as a key “knowledge manager” in the nerve center of the North Dakota National Guard’s flood response here.

As a Guard flood fighter, Valenti, who’s also a senior majoring in emergency management at North Dakota State University, has had a front row seat in the ultimate disaster-response classroom.

He’s working in the Joint Task Force-East (JTF-E) operations center, constantly updating data that appears on five big-screen monitors in a busy room of flood-fighting Soldiers and Airmen.

The screens show real-time geospatial maps, regional river levels, locations of Guard units and weather radar information — important stuff that Valenti’s Guard leaders need to make educated decisions in their fight against Mother Nature.

“What we do here is identical to what any Emergency Operations Center located around the country might look like,” Valenti said. “It’s what FEMA uses and it’s what state EOCs use for incident commands during an emergency.”

Valenti is using his on-the-job experience with the Guard to fulfill a 3-credit “internship” requirement for graduation from NDSU.

Carol Cwiak, an assistant professor in the NDSU Department of Emergency Management, recently visited Valenti when he was on duty. She got a tour of JTF-E operations center and came away impressed.

“I think Justin is doing a great job, and I’m so pleased that he’s getting the opportunity to do this,” Cwiak said. “It’s great that he can marry his Guard skills and experience with his college education.

“Not everyone gets that kind of opportunity.”

Cwiak met with Valenti’s Guard bosses, Col. Steve Tabor, commander of JTF-E, and Sgt. Maj. Kevin J. Keefe, JTF-E chief of operations, both of whom stressed the importance of the information that Valenti and his teammate, Staff Sgt. Nick Suko, Bismarck, provide for the flood-fighting effort.

But one of the biggest endorsements came from, Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk, top commander of the North Dakota National Guard, who also met with Cwiak.

“Sgt. Valenti and Staff Sgt. Suko are the ones who put a lot of this together so our people can see, in a real-time setting, what's going on out there, where our people are, what the missions are, the status of their progress, what the flood flows are and what are the likely areas of flooding if there was a breach of a levee,” Sprynczynatyk said.  “It's really amazing; the use of technology today helps us do our job much, much better than in the past.”

Keefe said the kinds of Incident Command System concepts that Valenti is becoming familiar with at the operations center are things that he and other JTF-E officials had to go to special classes for.

Keefe said he had no doubts that Valenti could fulfill the key role of a senior contingency operator, even with his limited experience. Valenti was one of Keefe’s Soldiers when they both served in Iraq during “The Surge” in 2008 near Sadr City.

“He did everything I asked of him then, and he does everything I ask of him now,” Keefe said. “We could not do all that we’re doing here without him.”

Valenti has been a volunteer in the Guard’s flood-response effort since early March, and he said he’s committed to seeing it through until the end.

That dedication has forced him to miss much of the spring semester of classes at NDSU. He will make up six of his spring semester courses this summer, under a plan he worked out with his professors. He plans to graduate in December.

Valenti knows it’s a bit of a sacrifice, but it’s one that he’s eager to make for the good of his future.

“It’s the kind of opportunity that you can’t pass up and you just have to go for it,” he said. “This is going to look really good on my resume some day.”


Since the 2001 terrorist attacks on America, the North Dakota National Guard has mobilized more than 3,500 Soldiers and more than 1,800 Airmen in support of the Global War on Terrorism. Currently, about a dozen North Dakota Guardsmen are serving overseas while more than 4,000 remain in the state for emergency response and national defense.  For every 10,000 citizens in North Dakota, 65 serve in the North Dakota National Guard, a rate that’s more than four times the national average.

Video:Video to accompany this release can be viewed at

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Another fledgling finds his wingsa blog post from “Ms. C”

Guard Steps Up Tech in 2011 Flood Fight (April 9, 2011)


Col. Steve Tabor, commander of Joint Task Force-East, laughs with Dr. Carol Cwiak, assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Management at North Dakota State University in Fargo, while explaining the “knowledge management” processes that are in place that JTF-E uses in its flood-fighting efforts in and around Fargo. One of Cwiak’s students, Sgt. Justin Valenti, Fargo, manages the information system for JTF-E. (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class David Dodds)
Sgt. Justin Valenti (right), Fargo, assembles important flood-fighting information for staff members in the Joint Task Force-East Operations Center on April 12, 2011, in Fargo. Valenti, along with Staff Sgt. Nick Suko (right), are contingency operators for JTF-E that manage and update information and technical data that help Guard leaders make important decisions for their flood-response effort in and around Fargo. (Photo by Sgt. 1st Class David Dodds)
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