As adjutant general of the State of Kansas, Maj. Gen. Lee Tafanelli is responsible for the Kansas Army National Guard and Air National Guard, the men and women who Kansans depend on when disaster strikes. He is also director of the Division of Emergency Management and Homeland Security for Kansas.
Fortunately, the storm passed without serious damage, but, Tafanelli noted, it had already been a busy spring for the Kansas National Guard.
“In the past days, we’ve responded to fires in the west, a tornado and flooding,” Tafanelli said. “It’s Kansas, so we have to be prepared for whatever Mother Nature decides to throw at us. Depending on the time of year, that may be snow and ice storms, blizzards, floods, wind, tornados or wildfires.”
“On a sunny afternoon this past spring, Lee Tafanelli watched in his Topeka office as an angry red blob on the radar screen rolled across his hometown in southeast Kansas.
He knew that if the storm developed a tornado, he could be called upon to help pick up the pieces.”
In his office in Topeka, where he oversees more than 7,700 soldiers and airmen and 2,300 state and federal employees, Tafanelli is never far from his days as a boy growing up in rural southeast Kansas.
“It’s hard to grow up (in southeast Kansas) and not have that be part of you,” Tafanelli said. “I think it’s that immigrant history that has played a big part for me. Those individuals came to this country with virtually nothing. They made a life for their families and the generations that followed them. It gives you a deep appreciation for the work ethic and tenacity they had.”
It’s been 33 years since Tafanelli joined the Kansas Army National Guard, but he didn’t set out to build a career in the military. In fact, he didn’t take his first offer because of the length of the commitment.
“In high school, I had an offer from the Navy to get into their nuclear engineering program,” Tafanelli said. “At the time, I remember thinking, ‘four years of school and then you still owed the Navy six years.”
After graduating from Frontenac high school, he enrolled at Pittsburg State University, where he learned he could become an officer by going through PSU’s ROTC program. It is also where he met the late Col. Bill Hollenbeck.
“Militarily, the first individual who made a difference for me was the individual who swore me in here at Pittsburg State when I joined ROTC.,” Tafanelli said. “Col. Bill Hollenbeck had a distinguished military career, (which included) service in Vietnam. He then went on to be a special assistant here at the university. After he left the military, he continued to make a tremendous impact here for all of us involved in the ROTC program.. I’ll be forever grateful for that.”
Tafanelli joined the National Guard and found himself on a bus to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
“I signed up for six years and just thought I’d get my initial six years done and see what the world had to offer. And, after that, if I still enjoyed it, I would consider making it a career,” Tafanelli said. “After I got my commission from Pitt State ROTC, I had an opportunity to go to work for the National Guard full-time and the rest is history.”
That history is distinguished. Tafanelli has served in a wide variety of command and staff positions as a traditional guardsman, active guard and reserve and active duty soldier at the company, battalion, brigade, state headquarters and Department of the Army levels.
Tafanelli’s battalion and brigade level assignments include reconnaissance officer, equipment platoon leader, supply officer, company commander, and training officer in the 891st Engineer Battalion. He also served as the personnel officer and training officer of the 69th Infantry Brigade, 35th Infantry Division.
After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Tafanelli was called to the Pentagon, where he worked for about four months on mobilization and support of Operation Enduring Freedom.
In 2002, Tafanelli took command of the 891st Engineer Battalion and in 2005, led the battalion during a year-long deployment to Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom. He later served as commander of 69th Troop Command and as director of operations for the Kansas National Guard.
In 2010, Tafanelli was named assistant adjutant general for Kansas Army National Guard, and commander of the Land Component for the Joint Force Headquarters-Kansas. He was sworn in as adjutant general on Jan. 28, 2011.
“We came in January of 2011 with the inaugural and we ended up with a severe winter storm,” Tafanelli noted wryly.
As he walks through the Kansas National Guard headquarters, Tafanelli said he feels a strong sense of history. On one wall, his photo is the most recent in a line that stretches back to Hiram J. Strickler, the first territorial adjutant general in 1855.
Over the years, Tafanelli said, each adjutant general confronted challenges unique to his own time. Today, those challenges are varied and complex.
“Since 9-11, our world (and the way) we look at things has changed,” Tafanelli said. “There are many types of asymmetric threats around the globe and not just in the major urban areas. Those same things can impact and affect Kansas, as well. We work on a whole series of potential disasters that may impact Kansas — everything from a potential terrorist attack to natural disasters. From a homeland security perspective, what we try to do is have an all-hazards response, so that whatever it is, we have the same response network in place so we can mitigate the effects as quickly as we can.”
Responding to natural disasters, Tafanelli said, means working closely with Kansas’ 105 county emergency managers and their staffs, who all receive training through the department.
“What we try to do in the Division of Emergency Management, is to make sure that we have an accurate picture of what the threat may be,” Tafanelli said. “Then we try to anticipate what the requirements are going to be coming from those towns, so when the county emergency managers and the mayors call and need assistance, we have a very well organized and coordinated response.”
Shrinking resources are a big concern, Tafanelli said.
“Militarily, we’re now coming down from 12 years of conflict and abundant resources to an era of restrained resources,” Tafanelli said. “Some questions we have to answer are: ‘How do we ensure that we’ve got our soldiers and our airmen positioned for the next time that phone rings and we have to deploy?’ ‘How do we retain our critical skill sets and operational knowledge in an era when there’s going to be considerably fewer resources?’”
The questions are tough and the job unpredictable, but Tafanelli remains optimistic about the future.
“I work with a great group of folks who are focused on the right things,” Tafanelli said. “(We are all trying) to make the organization better and position the agency to anticipate and adapt to the requirements that will be needed. That’s true for our missions overseas, or when we’ve had a disaster strike the state of Kansas.”
Tafanelli is a graduate of the U.S. Army War College, Army Command and general Staff College, Air Command and Staff College, U.S. Army Airborne School, U.S. Army Assault School and numerous other military courses.
His awards and decorations include the Bronze Star Medal, Meritorious Service Medal with oak leaf cluster, Army Commendation Medal with two oak leaf clusters, Army Achievement Medal with oak leaf cluster, Global War on Terrorism Medal, Iraq Campaign Medal, Combat Action Badge, Parachutist Badge and Air Assault Badge.
He has a master’s degree in environmental planning and management from Kansas State University and a master’s in strategic studies from the U.S. Army War College Tafanelli served as Kansas state representative for District 47 from 2001-2011. He also worked for the National Agricultural Biosecurity Center at KSU.
He and his wife Tammy live in Ozawkie (Kan.) with the son Nick and daughter Francesca.