By Rick Dandes
The Daily Item
EAST BERLIN — An 83-year-old Milton native, who was the head of the Pennsylvania National Guard for nine years in the 1980s and 1990s, is being remembered by friends and colleagues as a champion who saved thousands of Guard jobs when the Army tried to downsize and also did much to expand operations at Fort Indiantown Gap.
News that Maj. Gen. Gerald T. Sajer died Saturday at his home in Adams County led to an outpouring of tributes Monday by friends and military colleagues.
Among those reflecting on Sajer was former U.S. Congressman Joe Sestak, a retired Navy admiral.
“I didn’t really get to know Gerald until I started running for office, first as a congressman, and then, when I ran for the U.S. Senate,” Sestak said. “At some point, though, we began to talk regularly. He gave me constant feedback, sage advice. He was a positive force, always keeping me on the right track. We grew very close over the past few years. I loved him.”
Sestak said they became fast friends because of their military backgrounds. “I was in the Navy, and Gerald, now retired, had run the Pennsylvania National Guard, but we both had an enduring respect for the American soldier. We saw each other as part of a band of brothers.”
Whenever they spoke — and it was often on a weekly basis — Sajer would harken back to his military training. “In the heat of my Senate race, he’d call and tell me how to set up my campaign, county by county. It was all about planning, he’d say, suggesting I run my campaign like a military campaign.”
Sestak said their relationship soon became much more than a political friendship.
“I was quite taken with him,” Sestak said. “I relied upon him. He was a genuine, original personality.”
Retired Maj. Gen. Bob Scales, former commandant at the War College, knew Sajer for 15 years. “His entire life was built around people, specifically soldiers in the Pennsylvania military. He had a passion for young people and had an ability to connect with them. It’s what made him such a great leader. He had friends all over the world,” he said.
Scales said that even after he retired, Sajer never stopped working for those who served. “He would attend wounded warrior events,” he said. “He would help those retired soldiers in need. Truth is, I never saw Gerry do something for himself. He always worked to better others.”
Sajer and Maj. Gen. Walter Pudlowski, former 28th Division commander of the Pennsylvania National Guard, first met in 1975. “Gerry was a magnificent human being. His heart was in the Guard, and he treated everyone he met with a great degree of dignity and respect,” he said. “The Pennsylvania National Guard would not be what it is today had it not been for Sajer’s guidance. Even today, you can feel his touch in how things are done.”
Sajer was the adjutant general of the Pennsylvania National Guard from January 1987 through April 1996.
As adjutant general, he was responsible for command, control and supervision of 24,000 soldiers and airmen of the Army and Air National Guard in units of the commonwealth, for providing trained and equipped units capable of performing war-time missions and for providing military support to civil authorities in responding to manmade and natural disasters.
After Persian Gulf I, when active, Guard and Reserve units were being downsized, the Army proposed to cut the 15,000-man 28th Infantry Division to a 3,500-man cadre. But Sajer’s vigorous opposition over three years saved the entire division.
He then converted the 28th Infantry Division from a light infantry to a modern heavy mechanized division, accomplishing that transition within three years. Under Sajer’s leadership, the Pennsylvania National Guard grew to the greatest strength ever — 24,000 — and was widely regarded as the best Guard in the country.
Sajer is survived by his wife, the former Helen Leskanich, to whom he was married for 54 years, and six children, Marsha, an attorney and retired Army lieutenant colonel; Mark, a business executive and energy developer; Susan, a doctor specializing in oncology and hematology; Scott, a business executive, former Army artillery officer and graduate of the U.S. Military Academy; Frank, a banker and retired lieutenant colonel who served in Fallujah, Iraq; and Peter, an engineer.