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Retiring Maj. Gen. Sprynczynatyk reflects on Guard leadership

Governor Jack Dalrymple and Maj. Gen. David Spryncynatyk tour the Minot, N.D. area in a North Dakota Army National Guard Blackhawk Helicoptor on Friday, June 24, 2011. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk has steered the North Dakota National Guard through the global war on terrorism, intense flood fights and dangerous overseas deployments, but he now faces what may be his greatest challenge: trying to keep up with his 2-year-old grandson.

After more than four decades in the North Dakota National Guard, the last nine as adjutant general, Sprynczynatyk is hanging up his uniform and heading into retirement.

His second-in-command, Brig. Gen. Alan Dohrmann, will step into the lead role during a change-of-command ceremony at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Raymond J. Bohn Armory in Bismarck.

The shift in leadership comes as the North Dakota National Guard struggles with recruiting challenges and prepares to shrink its roughly 4,200-member force by 250 within the next year as a result of military downsizing and budget cuts.

Sprynczynatyk believes the Guard still has a bright future. But he said it’s going to look different, just as it did when his interest in amateur photography motivated him to enlist in the 116th Public Information Detachment in 1972.

“Ten years from now, it’s hard to say what the Guard will look like in North Dakota,” he said. “But I can tell you we’ll be ready. We’ll be relevant.”

Guard evolves

Back in the early ’70s, the Army National Guard was focused mainly on construction and combat engineering, which was a good fit for Sprynczynatyk, who just had graduated from North Dakota State University with a civil engineering degree.

The Guard has since grown more diversified, still maintaining its engineering skills but also expanding with medical personnel, air defense, military police and communications, he said.

Its role in the nation’s military also has changed since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Sprynczynatyk has overseen the deployments of almost 2,100 Army National Guard soldiers and Air National Guard airmen in support of operations Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom and Noble Eagle. The Guard had well over 1,000 soldiers and airmen deployed overseas at one time during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a number that has since dropped to about 20 deployed overseas.

“The Guard is a very critical element of our nation’s defense, where we were once a strategic reserve,” he said. “We have become an operational force.”

With that critical role has come what has “by far” been the hardest part of the job, he said: coping with the deaths of 14 North Dakota Army National Guard soldiers killed in the global war on terrorism since July 2003.

Sprynczynatyk, who has two daughters and two grandsons, said he’s proud of the soldiers who gave their lives for their country and those back home who supported their families through the difficult times. A memorial was dedicated in 2009 outside Guard headquarters in Bismarck, he noted.

“We reassure them that we’ll never forget their lost loved ones,” he said.

‘An incredible legacy’

Before then-Gov. John Hoeven named him as North Dakota 20th adjutant general in August 2006, Sprynczynatyk had established a long career in state government. He started as a planning engineer with the State Water Commission in 1972, just after he joined the Guard.

The Wilton native was promoted to state engineer at the commission in 1989 and spent 11 years in the role. That timeframe saw him first planning how to get water into Devils Lake during dry years in the late ’80s and early ’90s and later working on the Devils Lake outlet to relieve the slow-motion flooding that began in 1993 and inundated thousands of acres of farmland and destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses.

The experience would later prove valuable when the Guard mobilized to fight major floods in Fargo in 2009 and Minot and Bismarck in 2011.

“He really worked well with us,” Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said. “He understood the river, and he was, I would say, a huge advocate for the city of Fargo.”

Sprynczynatyk became director of the Department of Transportation in 2001. The Four Bears Bridge in New Town was completed during his tenure, and work began on two others major projects, the new Liberty Memorial Bridge in Bismarck and the four-lane expansion of Highway 2 from Minot to Williston.

But he’s most recognized for his long service in the Guard and role as adjutant general.

“He leaves an incredible legacy,” Dohrmann said.

Smooth transition expected

Both men expect a smooth leadership transition, having worked side-by-side since Sprynczynatyk chose Dohrmann as his second-in-command in 2007.

The two first worked together in the mid-1990s when Sprynczynatyk was commandant of what is now the Guard’s Regional Training Institute at Camp Grafton and he brought Dohrmann on board as a senior instructor.

Dohrmann, 55, a LeSueur, Minn., native and attorney who served seven years of active duty in the U.S. Army in Germany and Japan before joining the North Dakota National Guard in 1991, doesn’t foresee any major changes as he takes over, but he said outside influences will force the Guard to continue to adapt and find efficiencies.

“I’m in sync. I know exactly how we got to where we are today and what the vision is going forward and totally support that,” he said.

Dohrmann said the biggest challenge for the Guard is the looming loss of resources.

“My biggest concern would be to maintain the readiness and capabilities that we’ve developed after 14 years of war,” he said.

In retirement, the 65-year-old Sprynczynatyk said his focus will be on his two grandsons in Bismarck, ages 2 and 7 months. He also hopes to relax and travel with his wife, Connie Sprynczynatyk, who retired in 2013 after 17 years as executive director of the North Dakota League of Cities.

And he said he’ll feel good knowing the North Dakota National Guard he leaves behind is well-prepared and well-respected.

“It’s truly been a good ride,” he said.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.