KAYSVILLE — For the past 12 years, Maj. Gen. Brian L. Tarbet has led the 7,000 citizen soldiers and airmen of the Utah National Guard through multiple wars, natural disasters, global events and civil emergencies.
Appointed adjutant general by the governor on Oct. 1, 2000, Tarbet will complete his second six-year term Sept. 29 and will retire from the military after serving 39 years. He will be replaced by Brig. Gen. Jefferson S. Burton.
Less than one year into his appointment, Tarbet was in Washington D.C., scheduled to attend a meeting at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
The Kaysville resident and father of five was on the phone that morning with his wife, Mary, discussing what they were both seeing on the news about the terrorist attacks in New York City.
Their conversation was cut short, just as Tarbet told his wife that something was happening and he had to go.
“I thought when he left here that he was going to be at the Pentagon,” Mary Tarbet said. “So when I was watching the news that morning, I assumed that’s where his meetings were.”
It was the end of the day before her husband could let her know that he and his Utah colleagues, also in D.C., were all safe and accounted for as his meeting at the Pentagon had been cancelled.
The 9/11 attacks triggered a chain reaction of events that presented Tarbet with challenges no other adjutant general in the history of the state has encountered, said Patti Griffith, administrative assistant to the adjutant general.
He has commanded thousands of men and women — who primarily serve one weekend a month and two weeks a year while also maintaining full-time civilian employment — into wars and conflicts across the globe.
However, one of the most immediate challenges came five months after the terrorist attacks: the Guard’s increased role in security for the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics.
“We went from a behind-the-scenes role of helping with communication, air support and housing … to a very purposely public role,” Tarbet, 63, said. “It went from (involving) a couple hundred to over 6,000 soldiers from about half the states.”
Tarbet was very concerned that the Olympics might become a target for additional terrorist attacks.
“The soldiers and airmen that came were all very committed to not let anything happen. They really had their game faces on,” he said.
However, Tarbet explained that the biggest challenge they encountered was the public’s tremendous affection for the soldiers and airmen.
“That love affair with the public has continued as they’ve been very supportive of our soldiers,” he said. “The bond with the public has been strong, and in my view unbroken.”
The public’s support of the National Guard has seen the organization through a continued transformation throughout Tarbet’s appointment.
“We’ve gone from a strategic reserve to an operational reserve, which is where we are routinely and programmatically calendared to go to war,” Tarbet said.
Tarbet has travelled to Iraq and Afghanistan 11 times during the course of the wars. He said his purpose has been to see what conditions are like for Utah soldiers, if they are being properly utilized and cared for, and if they are being embraced by the other military units they are working with.
“If nothing else, his soldiers knew that he cared about them,” Mary Tarbet said. “When he is able to go to Afghanistan and Iraq, that’s meant more to them than you can imagine. He wasn’t the general. He wasn’t in charge. He was there for them. He was there to take care of them and keep their families safe … that gave them peace and comfort.”
Tarbet said he will take both happy and difficult memories away from his experience. While most of his memories will be positive, the memories of having to bury soldiers will always stand out in his mind.
“It’s just a heartbreak,” he said. “If you ask me what I will remember, it will be when we visit that widow, or when we visit those parents for the first time. Presenting the flags at the grave site will also stick out.”
Some of his more positive memories stem from seeing the actions of the soldiers and airmen he works with.
“Anytime you get to see soldiers in their natural environment, which means out doing what they love to do. Whether it’s flying, whether it’s building, whether it’s translating, whether it’s shooting artillery or flying tankers — that’s the most rewarding part of this job.”
Tarbet jokingly referred to the military as a “family business,” as his son Capt. Chris Tarbet recently returned from Afghanistan after being deployed as a Blackhawk pilot for the Utah Guard.
Sending a son to war “wasn’t easy. It was harder than either one of us thought it would be,” he said.
When asked what is next for him, Tarbet replied that he would be sure to stay busy. He listed possibilities of returning to his profession of practicing law, teaching military history at local colleges, or spending more time on the 100-acre Cache Valley farm he owns with his brother.