Ten years ago it was rare to find a member of the New Hampshire National Guard with combat experience.

Today it is commonplace.

In the decade since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a large number of Granite State Guardsmen have served in combat zones in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

As a result, the National Guard -- both locally and nationally -- has been transformed from a collection of weekend warriors to a seasoned group of battle-tested veterans.

"Since 9/11 everything has changed," said N.H. National Guard Col. Peter Corey, 49, of Whitefield. "Whereas having combat experience was an exception, now it's almost the rule."

About 2,500 members of the state's Army and Air Force National Guard have served in the Global War on Terror since Sept. 11. More than 50 have received the Purple Heart for being injured in combat. Four were killed in action.

"Today it's very unusual to find [Guardsmen] who haven't been overseas," said Corey. "The vast majority of our population has been to [combat zones], and a good portion have been there multiple times. Two, three or four deployments are not unheard of. The culture has changed dramatically."

Corey has witnessed this change first-hand.

He joined the National Guard in the early 1980s to pay for his college education at the University of New Hampshire, where he majored in plant science ("It was a very military oriented major," he joked).

Following college he found that military service appealed to him and he eventually signed up for active duty in the U.S. Army. He returned to the Guard in the 1990s.

During that time, the Guard was made up mostly of people who signed up for the education benefits and wanted to respond to local emergencies. The only ones with combat experience were Vietnam War veterans.

"In the beginnings of the current war on terrorism, when [the New Hampshire National Guard] sent its first big waves over there in 2004-2005, there were a lot of people who were like 'Hey, I joined the Guard for the education benefits and the additional income and to help here on the home front, I am not too excited about serving overseas in these combat environments.' That is gone now," said Corey. "People who are in now understand and realize that if you serve today you are going to go overseas."

Corey said this change can be traced back to the Gulf War in the 1990s. Following the completion of Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, senior military officials recognized the need to better train, equip and use the Guard. From that point on the Guard took more active roles in overseas operations and domestic disasters.

"There was a paradigm shift," said Corey.

Following this change, Corey served three tours overseas. The first was a United Nations peace-enforcement mission in Liberia from 2006 to 2007.

"Liberia was a disaster after nearly 20 years of civil war. There was no government, no services, nothing. That was a real eye opener for me," said Corey. "You get out of western countries and you see the world isn't all like us."

During the next five years, he participated in a disaster relief mission following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and a peace-keeping mission in Ethiopia from 2007 to 2008. He recently returned from Kuwait, where he spent the past year with the 197th Fires Brigade supporting Operation New Dawn.

Corey followed in the footsteps of his father, former Littleton resident and Master Sgt. Allen Corey, who served 40 years with the N.H. National Guard.

"It's funny because the military was not my career choice," said Corey. "It's funny how life steers you in certain directions. It has become a lifetime career and one that I've enjoyed. If you like what you're doing and it's putting food on the table, why change?

"That's not to say there haven't been sacrifices on the part of my family, in terms of long and frequent absences from home, but at the end of the day I like what the military stands for."

Looking ahead Corey said the National Guard would probably see fewer overseas deployments in the near future. There will be less demand for troops as the American military withdraws from Iraq and draws down its forces in Afghanistan.

Corey, who has probably served his final deployment and expects to retire over the next five years, hoped the Guard would continue to operate at its current high level and not slide back to where it had been prior to Sept. 11.

"I don't think a lot of people in the Guard now want to go back to a time when the it was just a strategic reserve," said Corey. "Now it's being utilized. Most leaders and most people who are members hope that will continue."

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