During one of her evaluations on the way to being named the top recruiter in the nation for the Army National Guard, Sergeant First Class Tavia Syme was asked by a superior officer who she saw as her role model in life. Though the question caught her by surprise, she didn’t hesitate to reply that it was her stepfather, who had helped raise her from the age of 3 and who had passed away from pancreatic cancer four years earlier.
“He always worked hard. He never complained,” Syme said. “My goal in life is to be as good a person as I felt he was in everything I do.”
That answer, and her accomplishments as a recruiter in Northwest Montana must have impressed the officers making the decision, because two days later, on Dec. 4 at a ceremony in Orlando, Fla., they would name her the best among 4,400 National Guard recruiters nationwide. At 46, Syme was one of the oldest finalists for the award, and she is the first woman to receive it.
During an interview last month at the National Guard recruiting office in Kalispell where she works, Syme recalled the moment when, standing among the seven finalists, she learned she was the winner.
“You’re in front of hundreds,” she said. “When they call your name and you take that right step forward, it was just amazing.”
A 1983 graduate of Columbia Falls High School, Syme served 15 years in the Army Reserve, including a 2003 deployment to Iraq, before becoming a recruiter for the Guard nearly three years ago. Her win in national competition comes after being named Montana recruiter of the year, and winning a regional competition among seven Western states in October.
Though her mission was to recruit 16 during the second half of 2009 and the first half of this year, Syme enlisted 35, more than 200 percent of her goal. Not only did she exceed her assignment in terms of numbers, but the quality of the recruits Syme brought in was high in terms of their aptitude test scores, education levels, physical fitness and other attributes. Her Kalispell office, where she works with two other recruiters, is the recruiting station of the year in Montana.
Syme believes her success derives from a desire to develop close relationships with recruits, not with the sole intention of signing them up for service, but to help them determine whether joining the National Guard is the right decision. She encourages the young men and women to explore their options in other branches of service before committing to the Guard. She meets with their families to answer questions and allay concerns. When she encounters an applicant eager to jump into the process, Syme encourages them to go home, consider their decision, and return when they have given it more thought or have more questions.
“That’s part of what my reputation has become, is the honesty, the follow-through,” Syme said. “I think it’s important to know what drives them, and what their goals and ambitions are.”
“Our office feels that you don’t just recruit a number, you’re recruiting a family,” she added. That commitment extends to Syme’s actual family: All three of her children are in the military: two in the National Guard and one in the Navy.
“If I can enlist my own family, you know it goes a long way,” she said.
Nor does Syme shy away from providing straightforward answers to questions, even if she knows it may not be what the potential recruit wants to hear. Syme often fields inquiries from those interested in enlisting but who don’t want to deploy to a war zone.
“I will never promise someone that they’re not going to deploy,” she said. “I don’t have a crystal ball.”
But when Syme does take on a recruit, she does everything possible to help them excel at the entrance exams and physical fitness tests that are the prerequisites to military service.
“I’m doing sit-ups in my house with some recruits to help them pass,” Syme said. “They call me a workaholic, but I don’t consider it work; I consider it opening doors.”
“I think everyone needs a goal and a star to reach for,” she added.
Syme routinely gets letters from her recruits going through basic training, and she recalled a young woman, from a family of eight, who just graduated from Columbia Falls High School. Though she was scared to enter basic training, Syme said the woman found the courage to enter, and recently sent a letter updating Syme on her status.
“She is actually graduated from basic training and job training,” Syme said. “And now she has the opportunity to go to college that she would not have had.”
But the flipside of those triumphs comes when Syme encounters someone who appears suitable for the National Guard, but doesn’t qualify. She recalled a young man who, looking for a way to pay for college, seemed like a good fit. Syme drove him to Butte for his physical exam, where tests revealed the man suffered from an unacceptable level of hearing loss in one ear, disqualifying him from all branches of the military. Her attempts to obtain a waiver for him were unsuccessful.
“This young man actually cried when I told him and it broke my heart,” Syme said. “When he left he gave me a hug and said, ‘Thanks for doing what you could.’”
As far as Syme knows, the young man is currently working for minimum wage, unable to pay for school: “There’s also heartbreak in being a recruiter, because not everyone is qualified to be in the service and that’s just a fact.”
The honor Syme received hasn’t quite sunk in yet, and the ceremonial saber she was given has yet to arrive in the mail. But she is already considering her goals for next year, which include assisting the station’s new recruiter, working toward her bachelor’s degree (of which she is only four classes short) and canvassing northwest Montana for young men and women who Syme thinks can benefit from the National Guard the way it benefited her.
“I like to find those that have that heart, like I do, where you can see the passion,” Syme said. “Without the service, I wouldn’t be who I am.”
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