When friends of John Paquette hear he’s going to Iraq with the National Guard’s 81st Brigade, they have one primary question for him.
“They ask if I’m scared or not,” said Paquette during an interview Monday at his West Hill home.
Paquette, 24, on leave as a city of Kent vegetation maintenance worker, just returned to town this week after a month of training at the Yakima Training Center. He leaves Monday – along with more than 3,000 members from the 81st Brigade – for two months of advanced training at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. He heads to Iraq for the first time in October for a 12-month deployment.
So is he scared? “Not right now,” Paquette said. “I’m more excited or nervous. I will be (scared) when a bullet or bomb goes by me.”
Paquette is one of 23 city employees who are members of the National Guard or military reserves. Paquette is one of four employees (along with two police officers and a firefighter) who will serve in Iraq over the next 12 months, according to Sue Viseth, the city’s director of employee services.
City policy follows the federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act that provides leave and job protection for up to five years for government or private business employees in the military reserves.
That means Paquette, who is in his sixth and final year with the National Guard, will get his city maintenance job back when he returns next year from Iraq.
Paquette joined the National Guard five years ago, shortly after he graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in the Federal Way School District. He had a job during high school stocking shelves at a grocery store and decided he didn’t want to do that kind of work the rest of his life. He had had an interest in the military since he was a child and wanted to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, Leon Paquette, who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
After Paquette attended basic training in 2004 at Fort Benning in Georgia, he started part-time as a city of Kent vegetation maintenance worker in the public works department. The vegetation crew maintains nearly 450 sites in the city, from traffic islands to the city’s 320-acre Clark Springs watershed east of Maple Valley.
Paquette, who became a full-time city employee two years ago, also works as a tree climber for the city to help cut down large trees. He worked as part of a crew that took down more than 40 trees last year at the Clark Springs watershed. Paquette climbed trees more than 100 feet high.
“You have to have the guts to get up the tree,” said Paquette, who was sent by the city to a week-long training course in British Columbia to learn how to climb and cut trees. “It’s kind of scary when you get up to about 80 feet. But I love the adrenaline.”
Even though Paquette uses a safety harness and ropes to make the climb, it’s not a job for everyone.
“He’s one of those thrill seekers, he gets excited,” said Scott Schroeder, city vegetation management field supervisor, who has watched Paquette climb the trees. “Sometimes we have to tell him, ‘you’re not climbing that one.’”
Paquette expects the focus required to climb 100-foot trees will help him during his duties in Iraq. Each time before Paquette moves up a tree, he must reset the rope, check to see if any knots untied and be well aware of his surroundings. That awareness will be vital in Iraq.
“There’s debris all over the road and bombs are made and put in the debris,” Paquette said of the streets of Iraq. “You need to watch everything on the ground or it’ll cost you your life or (those of) the guys around you.”
During his training over the next two months in Wisconsin, Paquette will learn how to provide convoy security, and to use machine guns. The main mission of the 81st Brigade will be to escort diplomats and other high-ranking officials in Iraq.
While this will be Paquette’s first duty in Iraq, it’s not his first mission out of the state. He served one month in 2005 as part of a National Guard security force in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.
“That was insane to see in America,” Paquette said. “To see the homes and areas destroyed, it was like a war-beaten country.”
In a few months, Paquette will see what combat looks like. When he returns home next summer, Paquette will take a couple of months off before he returns to work for the city.
It’s tough for Schroeder to see his co-worker leave for military duty overseas.
“You develop friendships and it’s a bummer to see one of the guys shipping out,” Schroeder said. “You wonder about the circumstances and whether he might get hurt.”
Paquette, who has a twin brother, two sisters and an older brother, will receive a farewell party Saturday from his family at the West Hill home where he grew up. And while he’s excited to go serve, Paquette said he can’t wait to get back home to return to his city job.
“I love it and with the bosses I have, it’s tough leaving my job,” Paquette said. “My bosses make it fun so that you want to go to work.”
Schroeder said few employees work as hard as Paquette.
“I sent him out to clean up a traffic island and he came back covered in dirt from head to toe,” Schroeder said. “No matter what you ask him to do, he’ll do it at 110 percent and with a smile.”