By Lt. Col. Brad Leighton, Illinois National Guard Public Affairs Office
Sweat poured from Mark Twain High School Tiger running back Mike Zerbonia Jr. His thick eyeglasses were fogging up, a clunky knee brace was strapped around his leg and his full head of hair was drenched in sweat – but he kept on churning out yardage.
“He would never give up and he would never quit,” said life-long friend Colonel (retired) Troy Phillips, who played football with Zerbonia at the Center, Missouri, high school and was later an Illinois State Police trooper and Illinois National Guard officer with Zerbonia. “It was never about Mike Zerbonia. It was always about the team and not wanting to let down his teammates. Much of his leadership was forged through sport.”
After more than 38 years of military service including combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Major General Michael Zerbonia, the Assistant Adjutant General – Army of the Illinois National Guard and Commander of the more than 10,000 Soldiers of the Illinois Army National Guard, will retire at the end of July.
Zerbonia, affectionately known as ‘General Z,’ said he really had nothing left to accomplish in the military. “It is not about you. No one individual is bigger than the organization,” he said. “It is all about working as a team and building those relationships. Everything you do should be about taking care of Soldiers and preparing them to fight and win.”
Major General Rich Neely, the Adjutant General of Illinois and Commander of the Illinois National Guard, said that Zerbonia’s legacy are the excellent leaders he has developed and mentored. “The Illinois Army National Guard has excelled under Major General Zerbonia. It is at or near the top of multiple readiness metrics and has excelled at every mission it has been given. Much of that is because of the inspired leadership of General Zerbonia and how he has developed those leaders who have served under him.”
Those who worked with “General Z” for years love him for his down-to-earth blue-collar approach to leadership, which he developed growing up in a small Midwestern town. Zerbonia earned a master’s degree in strategic studies and completed multiple advanced strategic-level programs including Harvard University’s General and Flag Officer Homeland Security Executive Seminar, but he explains strategic priorities to the troops in plain English – always calm, but occasionally laced with some colorful adjectives. Zerbonia is known for his tough demanding leadership, but troops know they can joke with the general when the St. Louis Cardinals lose or for his inexplicable but lifelong love of the NFL’s (now Las Vegas) Raiders.
Command Sergeant Major Michael Behary, the Command Sergeant Major of the Illinois Army National Guard, has worked with Zerbonia on and off for 17 years. “He is no different now than he was when I first met him as a unit supply sergeant. He was a Soldier’s leader then. He is a Soldier’s leader now,” Behary said. “He values your input and opinions whether you are a private or a sergeant major.”
Behary said the trust that Zerbonia places in noncommissioned officers has led to great respect among the NCO Corps. “He gives you guidance and then lets you do your job. He lets the individual work issues and solve problems. He understands and reinforces the vital role of the NCO and gives the command team the authority and ability to do its job, and holds them accountable.”
Retired Missouri Army National Guard Staff Sergeant Jeff Barton has been friends with Zerbonia since they competed together on the Mark Twain High School football team. Zerbonia, Phillips and Barton enlisted in the Missouri Army National Guard together, all as Military Police. “I think coming up as an enlisted Soldier before ROTC helped shape him as a leader. He’s always been a Soldier’s leader – just an all-around great guy,” Barton said. “He’s honest and forthright. He’s a special person and officer.”
Zerbonia served with the Military Police from 1983 and commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1986 after completing the Reserve Officer Training Corps program at Northeast Missouri State University. In 1988, General Zerbonia transferred to the active Army as an air defense artillery officer. He joined the Illinois National Guard in 1991 as the assistant air defense coordination officer with the 1st Battalion, 202nd Air Defense Artillery Regiment.
With the 1st Battalion, 202nd ADA he worked with Command Sergeant Major Robert Haverback. “From the start, you got the sense that this officer was the real deal and you would follow him anywhere. He also asked for advice from the junior to senior NCOs that were on the ground. His judgement was spot on and you knew he would always look out for all,” Haverback said. In the ADA, Zerbonia worked his way up from a battery commander to a staff officer and then to battalion commander. “He was also smart by surrounding himself with good junior officers. We always worked hard, but then would take the uniform off and go socialize. Many good decisions are made around a table,” Haverback added.
Zerbonia served under now retired Colonel Rick Todas in what was then the Illinois Army National Guard’s 66th Infantry Brigade. “He did the jobs he didn’t want to do very well,” Todas said. “Anyone can do well with the jobs they enjoy doing, but when you don’t want to do a certain job and still do it well and do it enthusiastically – that’s a test of character.” Zerbonia was one of those high-character officers, Todas said.
He also said that Zerbonia had a great sense of humor, which he attributed to his many years as an Illinois State Police trooper. “Those guys need to have a good sense of humor or they can’t do that job for very long.” Zerbonia became an Illinois State Police trooper in 1987 and retired from the state police in 2015 as the Colonel of Operations just before becoming the Illinois National Guard’s Assistant Adjutant General – Army.
Retired First Sergeant Lloyd Anderson worked with then-First Lieutenant Zerbonia in Battery B of the 202nd Air Defense Artillery in the early 1990s. “He would report for drill after working the third shift with the Illinois State Police in Chicago the night before, and we’d go right into the field. We bivouacked his first drill with the unit – we were out in the field almost every weekend. I remember one drill he had worked some murders the night before. That had to be tough, but you would never know it. The Soldiers really liked him. He was a heck of a leader – led from the front. You just knew there wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle. He listened to the NCOs and let them do their jobs.”
Anderson remembered Zerbonia studying for the Illinois State Police sergeants’ exam while in the field with his National Guard unit. “He was dedicated.”
Retired Colonel Tracy Nelson served as brigade commander when Zerbonia commanded the 244th Army Liaison Team. “He was not one to shrink away. Troops really loved him. He worked hard to stay engaged and to stay ‘in the know.’ That is harder for (traditional Guard Soldiers) – to assimilate, but he engaged people both inside the Guard and outside. He got to know people across the spectrum.”
Zerbonia said he values the relationships he has built. “That is the biggest job as a leader – to go and talk to and to learn from Soldiers. If you are relatable, then if they have issues they are not scared to talk to you. Then you can act for the benefit of the organization and for the benefit of the Soldier.”
Many of those relationships have crossed international borders. Both of Zerbonia’s combat tours, to Iraq and to Afghanistan, were as a U.S. officer serving with the Polish military. From May 2005 until May 2006, Zerbonia served as an intelligence officer under Multi-National Division - Center South in Iraq, which was led by the Polish military.
He deployed to Afghanistan from October 2012 until May 2013 as the commander of the Bilateral Embedded Staff Team A10 and as the deputy brigade commander for the Polish 12th Mechanized Brigade. He has traveled to Poland multiple times through the years as part of the Illinois National Guard’s State Partnership Program with the Polish military.
“The relationships with the Polish have been very special. Some of those Polish officers I met earlier in their careers are three and four-star generals now. The partnership with the Polish has done great things for the Illinois National Guard and our Polish friends,” Zerbonia said.
The troops loved Zerbonia because he was genuine and down-to-earth, Barton said. He grew up in the small blue-collar community of New London, Missouri, with a population of about 1,000. His father, Michael Sr., was a plumber and chemical worker with American Cyanamid for 30 years. His mother, Jeanne, worked for the Hannibal, Missouri, Courier-Post newspaper. “His mom was always doing something,” Phillips said.
The general was born the oldest of three boys and one of his brothers, Tony, would follow him into the military. Tony is now a sergeant major in the Missouri National Guard. However, when Zerbonia first enlisted in the Army with Phillips and Barton, his father was not pleased. “I think his father told him that enlisting was the stupidest thing he could’ve done. But his dad came around. In fact, he told me he ‘sure was wrong on that,’” Phillips said. By the time Michael Zerbonia Sr. died on Veterans Day last year, he was very proud of his eldest son and very happy that Michael Jr. joined the Army.
General Zerbonia would make mistakes too, although rarely, Behary said. “When he makes a mistake, he admits it – puts some perspective on it – and moves on. He never acts entitled. He just has this blue-collar work ethic. None of it is phony. He is genuine. He gets it and the Soldiers trust him, even when he has to make unpopular decisions.”
Being a leader sometimes means making a decision that benefits the organization, but might hurt some individuals, Zerbonia said. “Being the boss means pissing people off – even if you have a great relationship.” The best way to approach it is just to be straightforward and honest, he added.
Playing football for a small high school competing against much larger schools meant losing quite a bit, Phillips said. “I think we only won five games, but Mike persisted. He wouldn’t get down on himself and he wouldn’t let his teammates get down on themselves either. He just kept doing his best and pushing his teammates to do their best. Mike has been like that throughout his life.”
‘General Z’ said his proudest accomplishment is the Illinois Army National Guard team. “What makes the U.S. Army the greatest – our one big advantage – is that we let our young NCOs use their ingenuity and make decisions and that’s what sets us apart from every other army in the world. At the state-level, we have assembled one of the best staffs that work together on problems and identify and implement solutions – most of which come from the field. We’ve got very capable and extraordinary brigade and battalion command teams and I trust them implicitly to continue our success into the future.”