Whenever an employer hires a member of the Minnesota Army National Guard, they are aware that the potential exists that the call to duty can come at any time and the employer needs to adjust on the fly. In the four years Danny Heikkinen has been employed as a probation agent in Wright County Court Services, the possibility of him being called away by the Guard has been ever-present.
In 2017, a year after he started working for Wright County, Heikkinen was deployed for a year at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center in Cuba. He has twice been called into service this summer following the death of George Floyd and the unrest that followed.
It has required Court Services Program Division Supervisor Margaret Munson, who supervises a unit that includes Heikkinen, to be ready in the event he gets the call from the National Guard that puts his personal and professional life on hold and be called back into service.
In August, Heikkinen nominated Munson for the Patriot Award, awarded by the ESGR (Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve). The award honors employers who go above and beyond for employees still actively serving in the Armed Forces – something he believes Munson exemplifies.
Last week, Munson was informed by the ESGR that she had won the award. Wright County Court Services Director Mike MacMillan said he is proud of the work relationship Heikkinen has built with Munson and their collaboration for when the National Guard needs to be deployed.
“I couldn’t have been happier when I heard the news,” MacMillan said. “Danny is a great employee for us and we respect his ongoing service to our country, state and county. Margaret has been very supportive of Danny and his service and, when he has been called into duty, she has always found a way to keep her staff running shorthanded and getting all the work done that needs to get done at a high level.”
Heikkinen, who grew up in Rockford, has been in the Minnesota Army National Guard since he was 17 and will celebrate his 14th anniversary in November. His father spent 25 years in the Guard, retiring as a sergeant major. Danny continued the family tradition, becoming the fourth straight generation of his family to be a war veteran – having served in Afghanistan in 2012-13.
Heikkinen said that being an active veteran of the Armed Services comes with its share of challenges in the workplace. He has a heavy workload as a probation agent and said the men and women of the National Guard come from all walks of life and must be able to deploy on extremely short notice – for themselves, their families and their employers.
He said many of his fellow members of the Guard and Reserve are concerned about leaving their jobs behind and the potential it could leave their co-workers in the lurch – having to fill the void left by his absence.
“I think you always worry about that being a potential issue – absolutely,” Heikkinen said. “But, I think as long as you can have clear communication with your supervisor and co-workers from the outset, you can make it work.”
Heikinnen has been deployed twice to the Twin Cities since Floyd’s death – once in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy and again the last week of August. While Munson was able to prepare for his 2017 deployment to Guantanamo, his recent calls to service left little to no preparation time. But, her division is used to working odd hours and, at times, long hours, so that has been able to help her office react and respond in its own way.
“We have an awesome team,” Munson said. “I have supervisors – 10 of us in my group – we all know when Danny gets his notice and off we go from there. It just all falls into place. Most of what we do here is non-traditional anyway. We’re 24/7, especially in the pre-trial group. There’s always staff on call. Danny does a really good job communicating. Last week, he got the call and he was out the door in 20 minutes.”
Heikkinen serves in the 257th Military Police Company, a National Guard reaction force known for being called to action on short notice. His first deployment kept him away from his Court Services job for more than two weeks as the National Guard was brought in to protect buildings and landmarks and to secure streets and neighborhoods.
He had a feeling when protests quickly morphed into looting and the burning of buildings that he likely was going to get the call. But, in his service in the Guard, he has learned that is more an expectation than a guess.
“The first activation in Minneapolis for the civil unrest was 14 days,” Heikkinen said. “We were in both Minneapolis and St. Paul doing different missions. We had a three-day drill at the end of it, so we were actually down there 17 days. That was something you couldn’t plan for. You always have to be ready and keep your bags prepped.”
His first deployment to the Twin Cities coincided with his young family moving into a new house – he has a wife and two children under the age of 2. With him gone, several of his co-workers in Court Services assisted his wife, friends and neighbors in packing boxes and cleaning the home they were leaving as a way of showing their appreciation for his service.
“It was incredible,” Heikkinen said. “When you get deployed, you leave everything behind – including your family. I have some really great people in my life, including my co-workers here. They make sure to key an eye out for my family and they pitched in to help us move into our new house. There are a lot of people that wouldn’t do that, but they did.”
Heikkinen works with individuals in the pre-trial portion of the legal system – those who have been recently arrested that are typically in crisis, have a lot of needs and often have feelings of despair about where their lives will go. Munson praised Heikkinen’s skill at dealing with people who have some form of mental illness, especially those who are veterans – who he can speak to with a level of understanding that most civilians can’t.
Munson said she was happily surprised to win the Patriot Award, but acknowledged that when she found out Heikkinen had given her a glowing nomination, that aspect of it came as no surprise.
They’re co-workers, but, in many ways, the collaboration within her department to help each other out for the greater good of the group has brought them closer than many co-workers in other lines of business.
“We’re a good team,” Munson said. “In a lot of ways, we’re like a family. We look out for each other and we don’t see each other as just co-workers. When you spend as much time as we do together in our office, it does become like an extended family and we help each other when it’s needed. That’s just the culture that has been created in our office.”