On July 4, when most of us will be enjoying time off with family and friends, Maj. Gen. Dennis L. Celletti will be representing the Illinois National Guard at an Independence Day celebration in Itasca in northern Illinois.
It's an appropriate gesture given that the roots of the Guard date back to Illinois' successful fight for independence from British rule in 1778. Today's Illinois National Guard is comprised of 10,000 men and women led by Celletti, assistant adjutant general and commander of the Illinois National Guard.
As Guard commander, Celletti is responsible for the soldiers' training, discipline, morale and safety. He also oversees the Guard's operations, maintenance, logistical support and overall readiness. In his role as assistant adjutant general, he maintains 53 military facilities throughout the state, manages new construction projects and serves as the principal assistant to Maj. Gen. William Enyart, the adjutant general. He was appointed to the assistant adjutant general position by Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Oct. 1, 2005. He made history in 2007 as the state's first assistant adjutant general to be promoted to a two-star general.
In his 38-year career, Celletti did not always hold a leadership position. In fact, he entered military service as an enlisted soldier following in the footsteps of his father, uncles and older brother.
"I was coming out of high school, and the Vietnam War was coming to an end," Celletti says. "I was going to Sauk Valley College in Dixon, Illinois, and learned about military scholarship benefits. So I thought I'd try to do that."
He spent four years as an enlisted man before his natural inclination to lead took root, and he decided to enroll in Officer Candidate School with the National Guard. He was especially determined to succeed because, as he recalls, his senior English high school teacher discouraged his career path.
"I talked about becoming an officer in high school and she said, 'Oh, you'll never do it. You need to concentrate on education,' " he says. "I always had the attitude that when somebody told you you couldn't do something, you should get motivation to go forward."
Celletti was the distinguished honor graduate of the basic infantryman's course at Fort Bliss, Texas,as an enlisted soldier in 1973. He later graduated from Officer Candidate School at the Illinois Military Academy and was commissioned as an infantry second lieutenant in 1976.
Since then, Celletti has commanded and held staff officer assignments at all levels from troop and battalion to brigade and now, Joint Force Headquarters at Camp Lincoln in Springfield.
"I found throughout my career that what I needed to do was always be prepared for that next rank and be prepared prior to my peers," he says. "If you put your heart into it and do what you're supposed to do to the best of your ability, the promotions will be there."
Master Sgt. Darryl Williams, a soldier who has served under Celletti's command for a number of years, is not surprised by the success.
"I predicted that General Celletti would be a one- or two-star general when he was a major. He pays attention to detail. He never judges a book by its cover. He treats everyone with respect and pushes everyone to do the same," Williams says. "He has a genuine love and respect for the Illinois Guard soldiers."
All along, Celletti's primary focus has been the development of his soldiers.
"There's a very small percentage of soldiers, about 2 percent right now, that are young. They do dumb things. They're not mature yet," Celletti says. "However, I always preach to all officers and NCOs, a true leader will take that 2 percent and turn them around. They will work with them and bring them back into the fold."
The toughest part of his job, he says, is investigating a soldier and taking actions against him or her. Unfortunately, whether a soldier receives a general or dishonorable discharge, that action can significantly impact their future.
Although Celletti has received numerous honors and accolades, he still sees himself as a traditional soldier still wearing the uniform every day, still participating with soldiers in weekend drills and going for his 15-day annual training. His attitude is reflected in his management style.
"I see General Celletti kind of like a head coach," says Ray Perry, a retired colonel currently serving as personnel support officer at Joint Force Headquarters. "He reserves the right to make the final decisions, but if time permits, he values opinions of his staff, encourages teamwork and gives guidance to facilitate promotions."
The Illinois Army National Guard has undergone many changes during Celletti's long career. Perhaps the most significant is the high regard the Guard is held in today.
"If you go back to the '70s, the leadership in active-duty units didn't have the time of day for the National Guard, for the most part. There was no respect," Celletti says. However, he's received many compliments from his active-duty peers for the work of his units, especially those units that recently returned from service in Afghanistan.
"It gives you great pride when you hear active-duty two-star generals saying that they can go on a military operation and come back successful with a National Guard unit," Celletti says.
The Illinois National Guard, 85 percent of whom are combat veterans, have made a significant impact in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Celletti.
"I've been to Iraq to see our units, and General Enyart has been to Afghanistan, and when you go back, you can see a major difference in what's going on," Celletti says. The soldiers, too, understand the impact of their work, which has resulted in high retention rates.
With more respect and recognition, the Illinois National Guard is better positioned to become a leader in the region and country. It is Celletti's vision and that of his colleagues, to gain congressional support for additional troops and resources to take on more homeland security and response responsibility. Filling that critical role will mean more federal dollars for high-tech equipment and other resources to protect lives and the property in the state in the event of a natural or man-made disaster.
"The adjutant general and the governor of Illinois are confident that General Celletti will always strive to improve the assets of the Illinois National Guard and effectively execute any mission," Perry says.
For Celletti, spending time with Gold Star families (families of fallen soldiers) is one of his most rewarding duties.
"Having to present the colors to a Gold Star dependent is difficult but rewarding nonetheless. There's a lot of mental stress involved, but it is also an honor to be in that position," Celletti says. It's a duty he's had to perform several times during the past year. His responsiveness to the families illustrates his commitment to his soldiers.
The sacrifices made by Celletti can be appreciated by his wife, Kathy, and son, Jason. The demands of his career have always taken a lot of time away from his family. Celletti says he's always felt their support.
"I have a solid wife who is a strong supporter, and my son understood, too," he says. "But there are a lot of things I did miss."
Kathy Celletti and Jason Celletti are both achievers. She is a registered orthopedic nurse, and Jason is a Blackhawk helicopter pilot and a captain in command of an aviation unit in Chicago.
Celletti's cumulative military record has earned him the respect of the term "soldier's soldier," which he accepts as one of the highest compliments.
Ray Perry, the retired colonel, agrees with the description.
"He easily relates to soldiers at every level of command, he demonstrates caring in every conversation he strikes up with a soldier and he makes every effort to see soldiers no matter where their missions take them."
"He expects you to give him 100 percent, and in doing so, on the way home from work, you can always say, 'I gave the best I got,' " Master Sgt. Williams says.
Being a soldier's soldier often leads Celletti to the steps of a military aircraft carrying soldiers just returning to America from a deployment.
"I'm at the bottom of the steps ready to greet them when they come off that plane," Celletti says.
And, there's no place he'd rather be.
Story published Friday, July 2, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 4 )