Harlan, Iowa school superintendent, Iowa Air National Guard Citizen-Airman driven by selfless service

  • Published
  • By By Master Sgt. Duff E. McFadden
  • Iowa JFHQ
By Master Sgt. Duff E. McFadden

Whether it’s managing more than 2,400 students within the Harlan Community School System or overseeing the needs of approximately 9,000 Iowa National Guard Citizen-Soldiers and Airmen, the same principles apply.

As a traditional Citizen-Airman and 23-year military veteran, Col. Justin T. Wagner, functions as the J-1, or director of Joint Manpower and Personnel for the Iowa National Guard, based in Johnston, Iowa.

On the civilian side, he has served the Harlan Community School District as their superintendent for the past seven years.

“There are certainly common themes between being a superintendent and being an Airman,” Wagner said. “Solving difficult problems compassionately, yet effectively, exists in both arenas. Understanding that I’m here to serve is definitely an important part of both positions.”

Wagner, who previously served 18 years as an assistant principal at South Sioux City Community Schools, actually credits his wife, Mandy, with encouraging him to apply for the Harlan job; she went to school at nearby Carroll Kuemper and her family still lives in the area, so they decided to take a closer look.

“It didn’t take long to love this place and its people,” Wagner said.

Recently, fans at a Harlan High School girls’ basketball game took the opportunity to honor the 380th anniversary of the National Guard. Military veterans from all branches of service were recognized, an Iowa Army and Air National Guard color guard presented the colors, and Wagner’s orders, promoting him to colonel in the Iowa Air National Guard, were read.

Brig. Gen. Stephen Warnstadt, Deputy Commanding General (Operations) for the Iowa National Guard, also presented an Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve Patriotic Employer Award to Harlan school board president Lonnie Muxfeldt. The award was presented to the Harlan Community School system in recognition of their support.

“It’s important for me to acknowledge the contribution the Harlan school board has made in presenting Col. Wagner the flexibility to perform his domestic operations mission with the Iowa National Guard,” said Warnstadt.

In January 2016, Vigilant Guard, a large-scale, multi-state disaster response exercise sponsored by the U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) and the National Guard Bureau, tested the capabilities of emergency response agencies at all levels of government, both military and civilian. Wagner received time off from his superintendent duties to supervise the notional deployment of more than 7,000 Army National Guard, Air National Guard, U.S. Army Reserve and Active Duty servicemembers.

In September, Harlan officials granted Wagner another short-notice absence, as he assisted fellow Iowans in a real-world emergency. Heavy September rains caused the Cedar River and many of its streams to rise above flood levels, engulfing several eastern Iowa communities and forcing many Iowans out of their homes. With more than a dozen of Iowa’s 99 counties declared state disaster areas, approximately 430 Iowa National Guard Soldiers and Airmen supported local law enforcement and provided planning and response assistance to civilian authorities.

It was Wagner who tracked those military personnel throughout the state, ensuring their health and welfare needs were met.

“Col. Wagner is an individual who’s able to balance his significant duties as both a school district superintendent and as director of personnel on the Guard side. He’s also demonstrated his great ability to understand both the Army and Air Force functions on short notice and has significantly improved our operations in the J1 (personnel) section.

“He’s an excellent example of the traditional National Guardsman,” said Warnstadt. “He’s truly ‘always ready, always there.’ He exhibits excellent skills within his civilian capacity, and then he brings those same skills into the National Guard.”

Whether it’s their award-winning jazz band, academic curriculum, or any one of its many athletic programs, the Harlan Community School District holds each facet of its educational culture up to higher expectations.
And it all begins with the Harlan superintendent.

“Each day presents a different challenge, all in a good way,” Wagner said. “I've learned a lot in my role as superintendent that has helped me to be a better Airman, and that, primarily, is the fact that people are everything! You get great people, find creative people, find innovative and caring people, and then remove every hurdle that prevents them from doing great things,” he said.

Wagner said he personally carries the Air Force’s “little blue book,” America’s Air Force: A Profession of Arms, with him, as well as the Air Force Values, on a daily basis. He finds those same military principles to be just as relevant in civilian life and has proved to be a great teaching tool.

“I talk about these with the kids a lot, both at school and at home. The three tenets I personally live by are, ‘Integrity first,’ ’Service above self,’ and “Excellence in all I do.’ Those have always been real important to me,” he said.

However, Wagner’s leadership stretches beyond joint exercises and domestic response. It also comes down to family. He points out that being a National Guard Airman has made his relationship with his wife and three kids even stronger.

“When I serve, they serve. My wife makes sure everything is taken care of with our three kids while I'm gone and does an amazing job. I think she would tell you, while being away from each other is very difficult, it has made her a better wife and mother.

“Furthermore, my service has helped my kids understand what sacrifice is,” Wagner continued. “My kids understand about what a deployment is. Like my 14-year old said, ‘We understand, we get it. The community needs you, now. Love you.’”

According to Wagner, however, when everything is said and done, it all comes down to selfless service

“I have learned so much being a Citizen-Airmen and that has made me a better husband, father and friend. Many of these lessons are difficult to describe. I get the opportunity to serve the state and country that I love, while performing my civilian job, which I have so much passion for.

“To me,” he said, “this is the opportunity of a lifetime.”

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