Even Maj. Gen. Tim Reisch is a little surprised about his career arc when he takes a moment to think about what he's accomplished.
The state's adjutant general of the South Dakota National Guard for the last eight years, Reisch, a native of Howard, has spent 40-plus years as a member of the guard, dating back to his decision to sign up for the National Guard in 1978. But his career has also included a 17-year stint as Miner County Sheriff-elected despite having no prior law enforcement experience-and eight years as the state's Secretary of Corrections.
"It just seemed like everything just strung together, and it was all connected back to this decision to join the guard. Because I never would have ran for sheriff if I wasn't in the guard, and I never would have gotten into corrections if I hadn't been sheriff, and they all kind of run together, but the theme across all of them is that I was in the National Guard," Reisch told The Daily Republic this week. "But I think it's fitting that my last job of all of them, full time, is to be in the guard. It just seems hard to believe that it would all happen like that, but it has been fantastic all the way."
Reisch, 60, is the state's 21st adjutant general-a position in which he oversees more than 4,000 members-and he's the only one to serve as adjutant general after holding another cabinet secretary position.
"South Dakota has a proud history of service in the National Guard," Gov. Kristi Noem said after her election, while announcing Reisch's retirement. "I have the deepest respect for General Reisch's commitment to improving our state's safety and his dedication to bolstering our threat response readiness."
Immediately after the election, Reisch informed incoming Noem that he intended to retire but knew he had to be re-appointed to his position in a new administration. Noem was on board with having Reisch retire in June, allowing an extended transition to a new adjutant general.
Taking over is Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Marlette, who has been a member of the South Dakota National Guard since 1980 and has been the assistant adjutant general of the Army since 2011, overseeing 3,200 soldiers. On Sunday, both Reisch and Marlette will be attending the state adjutant generals association conference in Montana, and Reisch's final day is June 7.
"It's been different, but it's been real productive," Reisch said. "I want to set him up for success, and he's going to do a real good job."
A delayed start
Reisch was pretty sure after graduation from Howard High School that he would join either the Army or the Air Force. But at age 17, Reisch was having a hard time making a decision and wasn't impressed with the recruiters for either organization. At that time, he wasn't considering the National Guard very much.
Instead, he went to what is now Mitchell Technical Institute and studied plumbing. He worked for a few Mitchell plumbers, but it was a slow winter, and Reisch wasn't getting a lot of work.
"I'd drive from Howard to Mitchell to work, and there'd be a couple hours of work and they'd send me home, because there wasn't much to do," he said. "I kind of got disgusted, which kind of rejuvenated my desire to join the guard, and that's when I joined."
In October 1978, when Reisch joined at age 20, he was going to basic training with 17- and 18-year-olds, and his age helped him get picked as a squad leader. His father Amos-who himself served in the South Dakota National Guard-wrote Reisch a letter when he was in basic training that encouraged Reisch to go to Officer Training School, and Reisch's guard career took off. By 1981, he was a commander in the 153rd Engineer Battalion, which was based around Mitchell.
"It kind of allowed me to do well because I got picked to be a squad leader and I was just a little older, and I ended up being an honor graduate and I got to be good at this guard stuff," Reisch said.
At 24, Reisch found himself in a four-way race for Miner County Sheriff, and he ran on his experience as a commissioned officer in the guard. Reisch said the vote ended up being split enough to allow him "to slide through" into office. That was a job Reisch held for 17 years. It was something he would have been willing to do for the rest of his life, but Reisch said he was approached about taking over the State Training School in Plankinton in the wake of 14-year-old Gina Score's death from heat exhaustion in 1999. Reisch didn't get the job, but Gov. Bill Janklow then reached out to Reisch about taking a job as deputy secretary of the Department of Corrections.
"Of course, being sheriff, you're not guaranteed you're going to win every four years anyway, so I talked to my wife and we said, 'Let's go for it,'" he recalled. "It turned out to be a good idea, but two and a half years later, I was the Secretary of Corrections and had great help there."
Reisch held the top corrections job from 2003 to 2011 as part of Gov. Mike Rounds' administration. When Reisch turned in his resignation to incoming Gov. Dennis Daugaard, he indicated he would like to be adjutant general, and Daugaard took Reisch up on his request.
In taking over as the state's top military official, Reisch said he leaned on all of his past experience.
"I had a lot to learn about being CEO of the National Guard, but a lot of what cabinet secretaries have to learn to be successful, I knew," he said. "I came in and as far as developing a budget, presenting a budget, working with the legislature, I had been doing that for eight years already. ... And so even though it was a new administration and there's always some changes in how the governor's office works, those were real natural and those were real easy to adjust to."
Readiness drives National Guard
Reisch said he has had two priorities in his adjutant general role: taking care of the guard's soldiers and airmen and their families, and the readiness of the South Dakota National Guard.
"My job as adjutant general and our job in the headquarters is to make that our units are ready to go if the governor needs us, or if the President of the United States needs us, that they're trained and ready to go," Reisch said. "And I would put our readiness of both our Air and Army Guard against any other state. ... We're leaving this National Guard in probably the highest state of readiness it's ever been at."
Reisch said another major difference with the South Dakota National Guard today is that men and women in the guard expect to deploy and serve a tour of duty abroad. Decades ago, Reisch said readiness could be stressed, but the perception during peacetime was that "you're never deploying anyone anyway, and all it amounted to was showing up to weekend drill and two weeks in the summer."
"I know there's more pride in being a member than there was when I joined in 1978," said Reisch, adding that after the Vietnam War, the guard got bad press because it didn't send many men overseas to fight. "... But at this point, we're much more heavily relied upon than at any other time in my 40 years."
Reisch said a main challenge of the job is handling personnel, and holding a high standard for guard personnel. He said the guard has dealt with suicides and sexual assaults and hasn't been willing to lower the standard for handling misconduct.
"And those are hard decisions to make but they're important decisions to make, and if you don't have the stomach to bring someone in who is doing this full-time and screwed up, if you don't have the stomach to fire them, you're not the right man for this job, or right gal for this job," Reisch said.
A self-professed small-town guy, Reisch is fully aware of the importance South Dakota's small towns carry in building the National Guard. For example, Parkston, he said, has more members of the guard per capita than Sioux Falls or Rapid City. With that in mind, Reisch said that has made it difficult to close armories in small towns during his time-he closed seven in his eight years. South Dakota has 22 armories today, down from more than 50 at the guard's peak.
"And these were some fantastic communities-Miller, Webster, Sisseton, Salem. A lot of these towns were great guard towns, but it just wasn't meant to be any more because we couldn't afford to keep them open," he said.
He said he also wished that more women had been able to climb to the top of the officer ranks; to this point, South Dakota hasn't yet had a woman named general.
"It's just a matter of time," Reisch said. "It takes a long time to grow a general. We lose a lot of women just in general terms when they start a family because maybe they have one kid, two kids, it's a part-time job and they say, 'I can't do this anymore.' It's harder to get them to the senior ranks when you lose a lot of them to that point."
Reisch will transition to spending more time with his family and to living back in Howard full-time. He said he has a hobby of fixing up antique tractors and is building a garage for space to work, while hoping to spend more time with his children and grandchildren.
"Whether you put 40 years in the guard, or you put six years in the guard, you miss a lot of things with the commitments we have," he said. And you don't ever get it back. If you missed something, you missed it. But I look forward to spending the rest of my life not having to juggle a full-time or a part-time job in the guard."