More than 1,400 Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers and Airmen in nine different units were activated for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991 — the first presidential call-up of reserve component troops in more than two decades.
Retired Lt. Col. Norm Johnson knew immediately he wanted his three-man 132nd Military History Detachment to be part of the U.S. response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The 132nd MHD had just completed two weeks of desert training at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California a few days before the invasion.
“That’s why we train,” Johnson said. “The motto on our guidon was ‘First Plane In.’ You don’t do everything that we did just to sit back home.”
Despite the unit’s motto, the 132nd MHD would not depart for Saudi Arabia — where U.S. and coalition troops were staging in preparation for combat with what was then the fourth largest army in the world — until Christmas Day 1990.
The 128th Air Refueling Wing in Milwaukee had as many as 70 members volunteer to fly refueling missions out of Mitchell Field from the early days of the U.S. response. The Air Force tasked the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve to provide refuelers, airlift support and airlift control element augmentation beginning Aug. 6, 1990 — four days after Iraq invaded Kuwait.
A large portion of the 128th was activated Dec. 20, 1990 along with 12 other Air National Guard KC-135 tanker units and deployed to Cairo, Egypt a week later to support air refueling efforts there as part of the 1706th Provisional Air Refueling Wing. Additional 128th Airmen were mobilized to backfill positions across the U.S. or overseas.
Collectively, the Air National Guard aerial tankers pumped more than 250 million pounds of jet fuel into more than 18,000 aircraft. Lt. Gen. John Conaway, at that time the chief of the National Guard Bureau, called the tanker support a success story.
“The Navy and Marines will tell you,” Conaway said in a 2010 National Guard Bureau interview. “Air Guard tankers went up over Baghdad ... they were right there when [a fighter] was in trouble.”
An Aug. 22, 1990 executive order authorized the defense secretary to call up reservists, and the 107th Maintenance Company, located in Sparta and Viroqua, Wisconsin, was alerted in the first wave of reserve component units Aug. 24, 1990, reporting to Fort McCoy, Wisconsin for mobilization training a month later. The 107th could repair light and heavy vehicles, as well as communications and electrical equipment.
While the 107th would deploy to Saudi Arabia on Nov. 8, the first Wisconsin Army National Guard unit to arrive in Saudi was the 1122nd Transportation Detachment, a four-member unit based in Madison, which left Wisconsin Oct. 1. The 1122nd coordinated convoys — essentially serving as traffic control for ground vehicles.
1st Lt. Leslie Achterberg, commander of the 1122nd Detachment, penned this description of the austere environment in the Saudi desert for a 1990 issue of At Ease: “Imagine sitting inside an oven set on high, sifting flour in front of a fan, and add a few thousand flies.”
November would see three additional Wisconsin Army National Guard units called up — the Monroe, Wisconsin-based 1158th Transportation Company, the 390-member 13th Evacuation Hopsital, and the three-man 132nd Military History Detachment. The 1158th reported for active duty Nov. 20, followed by the 13th Evac Nov. 26 and the 132nd Dec. 6.
The commander of the 13th Evac, Col. Lewis Harned, was already a veteran of two wars when his unit was called to duty. He served as a volunteer ambulance driver with the American Field Service for the 8th British Army during World War II, and also served as an Air Force surgeon during the Korean War. He joined the Wisconsin Army National Guard in 1986, and less than five years later found himself selecting the location for a 400-bed field hospital in the sands of Saudi Arabia approximately 20 kilometers from the Iraqi border. The 13th Evac was fully functional 11 days before the ground war began Feb. 24, 1991. Many of the casualties treated there were Iraqi prisoners of war.
“They didn’t want to leave because we had been so kind to them,” Suzanne Mousel, a member of the 13th Evac during Desert Storm, told WEAU-TV in a story that aired Jan. 17, 2011. “And that was probably one of the neatest parts of it, was that they just discovered that we weren’t these animals that were going to do terrible things to them.”
Three more Wisconsin Army National Guard units were called up in December 1990 — the 229th Engineer Company, 1157th Transportation Company and the 32nd Military Police Company. The 1157th would deploy Jan. 8, 1991, and the 229th and 32nd arrived in theater after the air campaign began Jan. 16, 1991. The 229th was quickly put to work repairing roads, fortifying Patriot battery sites, construct fuel pipelines from the Gulf to the allied front, building earthen berms for temporary enemy prisoner of war facilities, repairing a badly worn stretch of road known as Main Supply Route Dodge, and helping erect the U.S. military field base Log Base Bastogne.
“Our mission on this supply route is very important to the effectiveness of convoys hauling material to the front lines,” Sgt. 1st Class Ricky Brown said in a 1991 issue of At Ease. “Our work on this road is part of Operation Desert Storm history.”
Documenting history was the job of the 132nd Military History Detachment, which was assigned to VII Corps. The unit conducted interviews and took photographs of individuals and units during and after Desert Storm in Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Two-thirds of the unit was deployed forward with VII Corps Rear on the second day of the ground war. But the fast pace of the ground war, combined with the rapid withdrawal of combat units after the fighting ended, made collecting historical information in a timely fashion difficult.
Johnson recalled that famed World War II historian S.L.A. Marshall had weeks to spend interviewing troops when they rotated out of the front lines.
“He had that time to do all that detailed work,” Johnson said. “For us, the war started and the war was over, and you were trying to [document] as much of it as you can. I figured if we could give some future historian the proverbial ball of yarn, they could pull from the end and get something.”
These federal activations marked the first such mobilization of Wisconsin Army National Guard units since the 1961 Berlin Crisis, and it provided an opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities to the active-duty military and the public.
"We can be extremely proud of the way our people have responded to this mobilization," Maj. Gen. Jerald Slack, the adjutant general of Wisconsin during Desert Shield, said at the time. "They have been ready when they were needed."
This sentiment was echoed by Stephen Duncan, the assistant secretary of defense for Reserve Affairs, in a 1991 report.
“Subsequent to the adoption of the Total Force Policy in 1973 and until 22 August 1990, no unit or individual of either the Selected Reserve or the Individual Ready Reserve had been involuntarily called to active duty,” Duncan wrote. “The responsiveness to Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm by American reserve forces and their performance, in what has been described as ‘the largest, fastest mobilization since World War II,’ was remarkably successful by any standard.”
Members of the 128th Air Refueling Wing were the first to depart the Middle East, with the first contingent of Airmen arriving in Milwaukee March 28, 1991 and the remainder of the deployed members back in Wisconsin by mid-April. The 128th was followed within days by the 13th Evac Hospital, 32nd Military Police Company and the 229th Engineer Company.
The 132nd Military History Detachment departed Saudi Arabia May 15, followed by the first iteration of the 107th Maintenance Company — a volunteer replacement company deployed in June 1991, allowing the 107th to redeploy home — the 1157th Transportation Company and the 1122nd Transportation Detachment. The replacement 107th Maintenance Company left Saudi Arabia on Oct. 31, 1991.