Apprentice electrician Dakota Gonzalez, grateful for Charleston, W.Va., Local 466’s full support of his ongoing National Guard service, proudly displays the local’s flag while on deployment in the Middle East last year.

Thanks to an unexpected nomination by one of its apprentices, Charleston, W. Va., Local 466 recently was honored by the Defense Department for its strong support of its military-serving members.

The nomination came from Dakota Gonzalez, an apprentice who also serves with the 2-104th General Support Aviation Battalion, a medevac unit attached to the West Virginia National Guard.

Gonzalez had been sorting through email messages to his Army account one day when he saw one from “Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve,” calling for nominations for the National Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award.

The organization is a Defense Department program that promotes supportive work environments for workers who also serve in the Guard and Reserve; its Freedom Award honors employers that demonstrate that support.

Gonzalez knew he had to put forward Local 466 for the award. “I immediately filled out the [nomination] form and sent it in,” he said, because the local has been extremely supportive of his growth both as an electrical worker and as a service member.

The apprentice was raised in a military household, he said, with his mother and one grandfather serving in the Navy and his other grandfather in the Air Force.

“Also, when I was little, I remember when 9/11 happened,” he said. “So, growing up, I felt a drive to join, too.”

His family lived for a while in Fairfax, Va., before moving around — as military families often must — and eventually settling in Fayetteville, W. Va., within Local 466’s jurisdiction.

After high school, Gonzalez attended Fayette County’s Institute of Technology. That’s where he met Local 466 member Danny Brown, who was an instructor there, and Thomas Samples, then-director of the Charleston Electrical Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee.

“Both helped me get into an IBEW apprenticeship,” Gonzalez said, writing positive letters of recommendation on his behalf.

At the same time, Gonzalez was in the middle of a seven-year commitment with the National Guard, working as an aircraft electrician. “It all came together for me,” he said.

As he filled out the nomination form, Gonzalez was mindful of the award’s focus on an employer’s personnel policies that make it easier for employees to participate in the National Guard and Reserve. While Gonzalez’s Guard obligations sometimes conflicted with Saturday apprenticeship classes, he said, “Thomas went out of his way to help me out. The local couldn’t have been better about it.”

Then last year, Gonzalez’s unit was deployed to the Middle East as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S. military’s fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIL).

“During my entire deployment, the hall was helpful, real brothers,” Gonzalez said. Fellow members sent so many care packages while he was there that some had to be turned away, he said.

With all this in mind, nominating Local 466 for the Freedom Award was a no-brainer, Gonzalez said, and he spent extra time on the essay sections to make as strong a case as possible.

Local 466 Business Manager John Epperly said that, with six paid office staff members managing a membership of about 400, Local 466 more than qualified for the “small business” category.

And the local has one other reservist in its ranks: Christopher Myers, who is attached to the Army’s 261st Ordnance Company in Cross Lanes.

Further helping to bolster the Local 466 nomination was the IBEW’s support of the national nonprofit Helmets to Hardhats program, which helps connect men and women having a variety of military backgrounds with skilled training and quality career opportunities in the construction industry.

Also, the IBEW in recent years has begun offering its own program to help military members transition back into civilian life through the Veterans Electrical Entry Program. VEEP works with military leaders and JATCs across the U.S. to provide interested service members with about six months remaining on their commitment a chance to take a free, intensive seven-week training course as preparation for a possible IBEW apprenticeship.

“[Award organizers] also reached out and asked us what the IBEW does locally with the community,” Epperly said.

The business manager noted Local 466’s participation in the IBEW’s motorcycle rides through West Virginia to raise money for research into a cure for Alzheimer’s disease as well as the members’ relief efforts following the catastrophic floods that ravaged the state in 2016.

Epperly admitted it would have been quite a climb for Local 466 to become one of the up to 15 recipients of the Freedom Award. The ESGR notes on its website that, during the most recent campaign, it received almost 3,400 nominations of employers throughout the entire U.S., including the various territories and the District of Columbia.

Even so, Local 466 made it to the whittled-down list of national semi-finalists, along with West Virginia University’s School of Medicine and Williams Energy, a natural gas processor based in Moundsville.

Although that turned out to be as far as the local got, as the top-nominated small business in the Mountain State it received the Department of Defense’s Pro Patria Award, the highest honor that can be given by a state or territory’s ESGR committee. (The Latin phrase “pro patria” means “for the homeland.”)

Gonzalez has since transferred membership to Columbus, Ohio, Local 683; his fiancée was offered a job she couldn’t pass up near great schools for her autistic son. Leaving Local 466 was hard, he said: “The guys there have been amazing.”

The move also puts Gonzalez a bit closer to the 2-104th, which is based near Parkersburg, W. Va. “I just reupped for another six years with them,” he said.