When Command Sgt. Maj. Rafael Conde becomes the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s senior enlisted leader June 1, he will bring with him more than 33 years of service as a traditional Guardsman and the unique perspective of a first generation American.
Conde’s life began in communist Cuba in 1962, where he and his family lived in Havana under Fidel Castro’s recently established communist regime.
In 1966, Conde’s older brother was sent to live with a family member in Miami. Shortly thereafter, Conde and his parents applied through a government program to join his older brother in the United States.
“When the government found out that my parents wanted to leave Cuba, my dad lost his job,” Conde said. “They had to scrounge for the following two years before we were able to leave.”
Finally, as a five-year-old in April 1968, Conde and his family arrived in the United States aboard a “Freedom Flight” – a program that brought hundreds of thousands of Cuban refugees to the United States. Thousands more remained on waiting lists when the Cuban government ended the program a short time later, so the Conde family considers itself lucky to have made it to America.
It’s no wonder the command sergeant major has such an appreciation for being an American. That appreciation is part of what drove him to serve his country in the National Guard, and it’s a key part of the perspective he brings to the top enlisted post in the Wisconsin Army National Guard.
“Once you get into a second and third generation, I think people forget the struggles that most immigrants faced,” Conde said. “I think it makes a first generation immigrant really appreciate what the United States means to us and how we can give back to America. Sometimes I get frustrated when I see people that don’t take advantage of the opportunities this country has.”
Conde never let his humble beginnings limit his potential. His parents never spoke English, and Conde began learning the language in school and by watching American television after arriving in Miami.
In 1980, he graduated from Miami Senior High School and followed his passion for football to Fergus Falls Community College, in Minnesota. Conde hung up his spikes for the last time in 1982, and joined the Minnesota Army National Guard in 1983, after beginning school at the University of Minnesota-Morris.
His love of country and the prospects of money for college played a factor in his joining the Guard, but so did his desire to remain a member of a team after his athletic career concluded.
His Guard career began in Minnesota, but he served multiple stints in the Florida National Guard due to civilian job transfers as well as multiple stints in the Wisconsin National Guard.
During his tenure in Florida in 1992, Conde was activated to support the Hurricane Andrew relief effort, underscoring the Guard’s dual role as the first military responder in the event of domestic emergency. He spent three weeks on active duty only to return home to find his own home damaged by the storm.
He finally returned to Wisconsin in the mid-1990s, where he has been ever since. By 2004, Conde had become the command sergeant major for the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry Regiment, of the 32nd “Red Arrow” Infantry Brigade. He deployed to Iraq in that role where his battalion served as the Iraqi Theater Convoy Security and Support Battalion from August 2005 until August 2006.
He eventually took the top enlisted post in the newly formed 32nd Brigade Special Troops Battalion before mobilizing again in 2009 for a deployment to Afghanistan with an embedded training team working with the Afghanistan National Security Forces. After returning, Conde became the command sergeant major for the 3,600 Soldiers of the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, a role he has held since 2010.
His unique background as an immigrant fleeing oppression in Cuba and his wealth of military experience prepared him for the challenges he will face as the eighth senior enlisted advisor for the Wisconsin Army National Guard.
“Certainly being in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan gave me the opportunity to look back and reflect on what my parents had to go through to get me where I’m at today,” he said.
As is the case with the vast majority of the National Guard, Conde simultaneously held a civilian career throughout his Guard career. He began working for a food service company in 1985 as a service manager and eventually worked his way to a district manager role. Serving his entire career to this point as a traditional “M-Day” National Guard Soldier is another experience he hopes to bring to the organization.
“I certainly feel the pain of the M-Day Soldier and what they go through on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “We still have all the requirements that the active duty does, and we have to get it done in 48 days.”
Conde noted how Guard Soldiers are asked to do a lot of work outside of their traditional drill weekends and annual training periods – from qualification schools and leadership development courses, to online classes and training meetings.
“I think the M-Day Soldier has a unique perspective on life because they have to balance work, the National Guard, and obviously the family,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a juggling act to get those things done.”
He also hopes to bring some of the lessons he learned in the business world to the military, just as he brought lessons he learned from his military experience to his civilian career.
His goal as the command sergeant major of the Wisconsin Army National Guard is to mentor and guide the next generation of non-commissioned officers and enlisted Soldiers to find ways to continuously improve every day and to find ways to bridge the potential communications gap that can exist in an organization that includes Soldiers ranging in age from 17-60.
Conde credits his family and his wife of 26 years, Jennifer, for shaping him into the man he is today. His family, he said, is what drives him.
“My kids give me purpose in life,” he said. “Certainly to me, it’s a legacy that I want to leave behind.
“For me, it’s about what they are going to say at my eulogy,” he added. “If the only thing they say is that I was a good father and that they respect me for the things that I taught them...that to me is all I really want.”
Conde will officially begin his new role at a formal change of responsibility ceremony June 1, at the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs, where he will be charged with leading the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s enlisted force as it begins a new chapter as the state’s first military responder and the Army’s primary combat reserve.
He replaces Command Sgt. Maj. Bradley Shields, who will retire from the military with more than 42 years of service. Shields became the senior enlisted advisor in 2013.