You are here
Home of the Brave
The chalkboard sign on the front porch offered the only clue of what awaited inside the white two-story house near Green Bay, WI. It said, “Welcome home, Toni.”
Toni is Wisconsin Army National Guard Private First Class Antonia Shanle. The youngest of five children, she returned home in late December from Advanced Individual Training (AIT) in California for the first time since July.
Like all big families, the Shanles are accustomed to long stretches apart. But what sets the Shanle family apart is the same thing that keeps it apart: All five Shanle children—(from oldest to youngest) Sergeant Ray Jr., Sergeant Natasha, Private First Class Tyler, Specialist Caleb and Toni—and their father, Sergeant First Class Ray Shanle, serve in the National Guard.
The family gathered a few days before Christmas to talk about how their service to the Guard has shaped them as a family and as individuals. It took months to set up a group interview because they are six adults with active lives plus the added responsibility of their service commitments.
Even the fact they all live in the same house—yes, six Citizen-Soldiers, all under one roof, and if that’s not some kind of record, it should be—didn’t make getting them all together any easier.
Finally a date was chosen … and Natasha couldn’t make it. Her military police unit was called up by Gov. Scott Walker over concern about a public protest stemming from a police shooting. The Shanles were all bummed that she missed several days of family fun—among other things, they were forced to postpone a Harry Potter movie marathon.
Time apart is the price they pay for being in the National Guard. But they also know that no matter how much they’ve sacrificed as a family, what they have together—because of the Guard—is priceless.
This story about one of the most patriotic families in the country starts with love at first sight in the mid-1980s. Ray Sr. was a Marine working security at an embassy in Ottawa, Canada. He planned to become a drill sergeant. He had his re-enlistment papers all ready to go … and then a beautiful FBI analyst named Lorianne Murray walked into the embassy. Ray Sr. shredded his re-enlistment papers before he even spoke to her. They married less than a year later.
A picture of Ray Sr. from his Marine days hangs on the living room wall near the front door. It looks over the room. A TV plays silently in the opposite corner, and conversation stops momentarily when news of Natasha’s unit is reported. Little Ray and Toni sit together on a couch. Ray Sr., Lorianne, Tyler and Caleb sit on chairs. Often, when one Shanle starts a story, another laughs and a third finishes it. Everybody gets picked on, but they also praise each other frequently.
Lorianne points out Ray Sr.’s picture and says he caught her eye every bit as much as she caught his. Their progeny swing around to look at the picture. They acknowledge their ol’ Dad looked pretty good back in the day. But they won’t leave it at that. They love to razz him—they gang up on him so much they feel bad about it. Well, almost. Caleb looks from the picture to his dad and back again. “What happened to you, Dad?” he asks.
Ray and Lorianne Shanle eventually moved to northeastern Wisconsin and bought a dairy farm. Their next-door neighbor was Lorianne’s father, Command Sergeant Major (Ret.) Lawrence Murray, a 30-year Veteran of the Wisconsin Army National Guard and a member of the Wisconsin Army National Guard Hall of Honor.
When Little Ray, the first to enlist, graduated from high school, he wanted to go to college but didn’t have the money to pay for it. Ray Sr. suggested that his son join the military, so Little Ray spoke to a Marine recruiter. That did not sit well with Grandpa. Murray had three cousins, a second cousin, a brother and two uncles who served in the Wisconsin National Guard. “He told me to get my butt down to the National Guard recruiting office, like, tomorrow. I’ve never seen him more upset,” Little Ray says.
Soon, Little Ray’s deal was done. The recruiter asked Ray Sr. when he was going to join. He laughed and said he was “too fat and too old.”
But the recruiter offered a generous signing bonus, and Ray Sr.’s experience as a Marine meant he wouldn’t have to go through Basic Training. He joined a few weeks after Little Ray. That’s when one Shanle family story started to become six Citizen-Soldier stories, separate but intertwined by unbreakable bonds. The National Guard has sent the Shanles to Milwaukee and California and Iraq and Afghanistan and many places in between, but they have always found their way back to the house with the chalkboard sign on the porch.
Little Ray deployed to Afghanistan from 2008 to 2009. After his first mission, he sent an email to his father. “Don’t show this to Mom,” it said.
The truck Little Ray was riding in had driven through a dried-up riverbed and run over an improvised explosive device. The explosion blew the hood and engine off the truck. Little Ray ducked as both flew over his head.
“I got showered in oil. Time stopped for a second,” he says. “The first thing I said was, ‘Guys, I think we just got blown up.’ I was that guy. Everybody laughs at me. Everyone was OK, fortunately.”
As Little Ray recounts the story, the living room falls silent. He looks up at his mom, who is diagonally across the room from him. “You’ve never heard any of this, have you?” he asks her.
“Some,” she says. “Not all.”
Some things she wanted to know, some things she didn’t, and some things she found out by accident. She was watching TV one day and saw a scroll across the bottom about Little Ray’s unit in Logar province, Afghanistan, and seconds later he called. He told her his team leader, Sergeant Ryan Adams, had been killed.
It was supposed to be an easy mission. But they were ambushed. Adams died from wounds suffered in the attack, and seven other Soldiers received Purple Hearts. The time immediately after Little Ray called home was when Lorianne (pictured above, bottom row) worried the most through years of deployments. “Was your head in the game?” she said on the couch, repeating the concern she had back then.
He tells her it was, more than ever. But his heart wasn’t. It was broken. He and Adams had spent hundreds of hours next to each other in that truck. Little Ray mourned for a year, carrying Adams’ Oct. 2, 2009, death like a heavy burden. He has moved on but not forgotten his friend.
Suddenly, Little Ray looks up and around the room. There is more to the story. “I don’t know if I ever told you guys this,” he says. “I just now remembered it. I don’t know why, I kind of blocked it out: I was supposed to be in that seat that night.”
Little Ray was always the gunner, and Adams sat next to him. That night, they had planned to trade spots. But they never submitted the request to get the switch approved, so they stayed in their normal positions.
Otherwise, Little Ray’s seat on the couch would have been empty.
After deploying to Iraq in 2007–08, Ray Sr. began working as a National Guard recruiter in Green Bay, a job that seems pre-ordained for him. As a young man, he considered becoming a youth minister. He is passionate about helping troubled young people turn their lives around and sees the Guard as a great vehicle for that. He was named the Wisconsin Recruiter of the Year in 2014, a fact his children bring up a time or 50.
The funny thing is he didn’t recruit any of his five kids. “People give me crap: ‘How many more of your kids are you going to try to enlist?’ ” he says. “I say, ‘I don’t have any more, and I never actively recruited them. They came to me.’ ”
His children back that up. They are very close to their grandfather and knew how important serving in the National Guard was in making him the man he is. They saw how it gave Little Ray direction, made him think of others before himself. They watched as Little Ray himself became a man in the National Guard.
None of them needed a recruiting pitch after that.
Even though they’ve lived it, the Shanles still seem almost surprised that all of them joined the Guard. “It’s really amazing because you don’t really come across this every other day,” Toni says. “When people find that out, they’re like, ‘Wow, I can’t even imagine one of my kids or one of my siblings being in, and all of you guys are.’ It’s a big shock to a lot of people.”
It would be an oversimplification to give one answer as to why all the Shanles joined. Tyler, for example, joined after the birth of his daughter, who is now a toddler. He had a good job, but he felt stuck there, with little chance of advancement. He needed to go to college but couldn’t do that and work at the same time. The Guard offered an alternative.
“When she was born, it made me see, ‘Hey, it’s going to take a long time to move up without a college education,’ ” he says.
While they all had different reasons for signing up, one theme emerged from the beginning, and a phrase in Little Ray’s first letter home from Basic to his mom summed it up.
“Why not me?” he asked.
The Shanles believe they have skills they should use to help others. Those skills are both innate (they are all natural leaders) and learned (their devotion to hard work comes from working on the family farm).
“We felt a sense of duty to our country, to our fellow citizens, to give back,” Natasha says in a phone interview. “I think we all are proud of each other because we know that not everyone is capable of this. We pride ourselves on being people who are able to help more than just ourselves. We’re doing this for the people who can’t do it themselves, and out of respect for the people who did it before us.”
In 2009, Little Ray was deployed to Afghanistan, Natasha was deployed to Iraq and Ray Sr. was working as a contractor in Iraq. That left Lorianne, Tyler, Caleb and Toni to run the family farm. Toni was too young to understand the gravity of the situation. Caleb was old enough to know something was going on even if he didn’t understand it all. Tyler, barely old enough to drive, became the man of the house.
The Shanles in Wisconsin sometimes chatted via instant messaging with the Shanles overseas. When Caleb saw that Little Ray was online, he often shut off the computer rather than engage his brother. He didn’t know what to say or what to ask and probably wouldn’t have understood the answers anyway. Plus, there was only so much Little Ray could say. “A lot of it was I couldn’t really talk about it—like, ‘Hey, I got shot at again today,’ ” Little Ray says.
Amid that chaos, Lorianne milked the cows twice a day, took the kids to and from school activities, even took the boys fishing, all while dealing with the anxiety of having her husband and two children in war zones. “There was one day where I had some decisions I had to make. It was like, ‘OK, do I puke, or do 200 sit-ups on the Ab Lounge?’ ” she says. “You just have to get it out.”
If the Soldiers are uniquely equipped for their roles, so is their mom. Little Ray drew an analogy to the movie 300, which draws its title from the number of Spartan soldiers who were picked to fight and died in the Battle of Thermopylae.
“They selected them for their mothers and wives, based on how strong their female counterparts were,” he says. “Those mothers and wives, after those Spartans died, had to hold their chin up and keep their composure and not cry in public and rally their entire city to go to war. A mother like this is a true Spartan woman who can hold her head up, hold her tears back, keep her [stuff] together. We would all be unraveled without her.”
All eyes converge on Lorianne.
“She is the backbone of this whole family,” Ray Sr. says.
Ray Sr. returned to Wisconsin from his contracting in Iraq expecting that the money he earned there had helped stabilize the farm, which had been struggling for years. But it didn’t. He decided to sell it, a gut-wrenching choice that nobody liked at the time.
Tyler had thought he was going to spend his life running the farm. Now, suddenly, that was gone. He was so mad at his father he didn’t speak to him for two weeks. But now he’s glad for the way things turned out. He probably would not have joined the Guard if the family still owned the farm. Caleb probably wouldn’t have, either.
It’s hard for either one of them to imagine getting to where they are now in their lives without the National Guard. And it isn’t just the children who found better futures by enlisting. Ray Sr. says joining the Guard “probably saved my life physically.” The fitness requirements forced him to get in shape and improve his diet.
Harrowing deployments, life-changing decisions, lifesaving decisions—for the Shanles, serving in the National Guard has been heavy stuff.
But not too heavy. Caleb questions how much better his dad’s health is. “You need two new knees, two new shoulders and a new brain,” he says.
Everyone laughs, Ray Sr. included.
“The brain is the only thing that’s good,” he says. “Everything else is falling apart.”
Running a dairy farm was a 365-days-a-year operation, so the Shanles have never taken a family vacation. But through their Guard service, they’ve shared intimate moments together around the world.
While on leave from his deployment to Afghanistan, Little Ray (above, center, with his brothers and grandfather) passed through Tent City in Kuwait. He knew Natasha would stop there on her way to her deployment in Iraq, so he wrote her a note, put it underneath a garbage can, then emailed her to tell her where it was. Weeks later, she found it, buried in the gravel under the can.
Little Ray wrote that he loved her, was proud of her, and that the deployment marked the first day of the rest of her life. She carried that note in her uniform every day of her deployment. She still has it and is thinking of having it laminated to preserve it.
On an off day around Thanksgiving later that year, Natasha watched movies and caught up on email in her room in Iraq. “All of a sudden, my squad leader comes in my room and told me to get my weapon, the commander needed me,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh, crap, what did I do?’ ”
When she arrived and saw her platoon leader, her company commander and a couple more people from headquarters, her anxiety deepened. Had something happened to Little Ray in Afghanistan? Was her dad OK in Iraq? Did something bad happen back home?
The commander handed Natasha a letter. She recognized Toni’s writing. It was a typical letter, sister to sister, nothing grave. Natasha started wondering: Since when do commanders deliver letters in front of so many people? She asked the commander what was going on.
He suggested she look over his shoulder.
And there, peeking out from behind a door, was her dad.
Ray Sr. had orchestrated the whole thing.
She ran to him.
“She literally fainted, collapsed in my arms when she saw me,” Ray Sr. says.
They cried as they hugged. They spent the whole day together, a father and daughter, thousands of miles from home, injecting a little bit of normal into lives that were anything but.
Later, Ray Sr. and Little Ray were on their way home from contracting jobs when they arranged to meet at the airport in Dubai. The father and son who hadn’t seen each other in two years sat next to each other on a flight to Chicago. They had 15 hours with nothing to do but talk. They talked about their experiences in the National Guard and in combat and as contractors, and the turns their lives had taken since they enlisted.
It was an unusual place for such a deep conversation, but it had a lasting impact on these two men who now share much more than a name.
“That was the best flight ever,” Ray Sr. says. “And I’ve flown a lot of miles.”
When they landed in Chicago, they couldn’t believe their eyes. The ground they left behind was brown. Now all they saw was green. The sky they left behind was choked with dust. Now blue filled the horizon. They had been gone so long they had forgotten what those looked like.
They ran outside and lay on the ground, under the flags in front of the airport. They carved grass angels. They looked crazy and didn’t care, two Soldiers separated by service to their country and now reunited by their journey home.
If you add up the days, the five children spent nearly a year combined just in Basic Training. Include AIT, deployments, drills and other training, and the family has collectively spent years with at least one member gone.
As much as the National Guard has kept the Shanles apart, their shared experiences in the service have brought them closer together. Once Caleb and Little Ray didn’t know how to talk about the National Guard; now they talk about it so much they sometimes force themselves to find another subject.
Once Caleb and Tyler bickered about who should do what on the farm (with Caleb now sheepishly admitting he sometimes hid and played with his phone to avoid work). They say they understand each other better now that they’ve both been through Basic, and they expect they’ll run a business together some day.
In their time in the Guard, the Shanles have all grown as men and women, Soldiers and leaders. Add in the strength they gained in surviving the loss of the farm, and they know they can handle whatever life throws at them next.
“We were strong-bonded to begin with and did things together,” Ray Sr. says. “But now that they all wear the uniform, we have that common bond—the brotherhood of brothers in arms. We’re all brothers and sisters in arms in this family.”
SFC Ray Shanle
Age: 49 / MOS: National Guard recruiter / Deployments: Iraq 2007-–08 with Troop E, 105th Cavalry / Fatherly pride: “The ultimate for me is to see these kids excel. That’s awesome when the senior leadership comes up and tells me what a great job they’re doing. I just take it in stride and try not to beam too brightly. But it’s there. I’ll close the door, go in my office and fist-bump myself.”
SGT Ray Shanle Jr.
Age: 26 / MOS: 11B infantryman in Company B, 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry Regiment / Deployments: Afghanistan 2008–09 with 951st Engineer Company / Family nickname: Little Ray / Civilian job: Personal CrossFit trainer / Nonmilitary talent: “I love science. This spring, I finished my degree—I have a bachelor’s in biology. I love physics, and I’m a huge space nerd, too.”
SGT Natasha Shanle
Age: 24 / MOS: 31B military police with the 32nd Brigade Military Police Company in Milwaukee / Deployments: Iraq in 2009–10 with the 32nd Brigade / Civilian job: Full-time college student; 911 operator/police dispatcher for Brown County / Family nickname: Tasha / Nonmilitary talent: Olympic weightlifting / Family fact: She finished high school a semester early so she could go to Basic Training. She took leave from her Advanced Individual Training to walk in her high school graduation ceremony, wearing her military uniform under her cap and gown
PFC Tyler Shanle
Age: 23 / MOS: 11B infantryman with Company B, 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry Regiment / Civilian job: Full-time college student; truck loader for UPS / Nonmilitary talent: “My dad took me fishing one time when I was real little, and I caught my first bass—it was 23 inches long. It was the best thing in the world. I’ve been hooked ever since.” / Dad on Tyler’s maturity: “He ran the farm when we were all deployed, when he was 15, 16 years old. It was nothing for there to be five, 10 kids there driving tractors, getting the field work done, emptying the manure pit. He could say, ‘Hey guys, I need help with this.’ And every kid in the county would come help.”
SPC Caleb Shanle
Age: 21 / MOS: 11B infantryman, Company B, 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry Regiment / Civilian job: Full-time student; works part time as a forklift driver / Family nickname: Cal / Nonmilitary talent: Always knows when to say the right thing—often to comedic effect. Example: “Ray and Tyler look more alike than me. Which is good, because they’re ugly.” / Family fact: Between preparing for the fitness test to get into the Guard and Basic Training, he lost 60 pounds—and has kept it off
PFC Antonia Shanle
Age: 19 / MOS: 35P cryptologic linguist. When her training is complete, she will be assigned to the 32nd Brigade Special Troops Battalion as a member of its military intelligence company. / Family nickname: Toni / Nonmilitary talent: Plays piano and sings. “I’m a big fan of Alicia Keys. We all took piano lessons when we were little, but I’m the one who stuck with it the most.” / Family fact: She scored very well on the Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB) test, which led to her being sent for advanced language training in California
CSM (Ret.) Lawrence Murray
Age: 80 / Enlisted: March 1952 along with two of his cousins; retired in 1982 / Deployments: Fort Lewis, WA, by President Kennedy in 1961 amid fears of a war with Russia in Germany / On having five grandchildren in the Guard: “I’m proud of every one of them. I was proud to be a Soldier and a National Guardsman. They’re doing the same things I was. There’s a lot of good things in the National Guard.”
The Shanles are just an extreme example of multiple family members serving in the Guard. Here are two more.
John, Jacob and Joshua Temple, identical triplets, are infantrymen currently attached to Troop C, 1st Squadron, 151st Cavalry Regiment, 39th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. The brothers joined the Guard together in 2009, just after their 17th birthdays. “It’s kind of a family thing,” PV2 Jacob said back then. “Our grandfather was in the Navy. Our uncle is Air Force Reserve. Our dad used to be in the Army. [Our] great-grandfather was in the Army.”
The Jones quadruplets—Private First Class Kahlil, Private First Class Karlyle, Private First Class Karon and Private First Class Kameron—enlisted in the Virginia National Guard two years ago as high school juniors. Kahlil is a cannon crewmember with B Battery, 1st Battalion, 111th Field Artillery, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. His brothers are all military policemen with the 229th Military Police Company, 529th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 329th Regional Support Group. All have completed AIT and are currently freshmen in ROTC at Virginia State University.