FORT MCCOY, Wis. — Family and friends of Soldiers from the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery attended a family-oriented, High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) live-fire demonstration on a sunny Saturday morning at Fort McCoy, Sept. 9.
The event gave families a chance to see what their loved ones do while they are away at training with the Wisconsin Army National Guard and underscored the impact a good support chain can have on the readiness of a National Guard unit.
Lt. Col. Matthew Beilfuss, 121st battalion commander and a native of Cedarburg, Wis., spoke about the importance of bringing Guard families to a live-fire exercise.
“They like to see all of the pieces come together,” Beilfuss said. “So it’s nice to be able to share that, and I can see that down to the youngest Soldier, who brought their kids and their whole families, and being able to demonstrate some of what they do on the weekends.”
Families arrived on busses at a hilltop observation station at Fort McCoy’s Warrens Drop Zone, where a HIMARS system was on display, along with a launcher team available to answer questions and show people how the system operates.
“This particular event is put on by the Soldiers for the families,” said Maj. Daniel Hendershot, the 121st’s executive officer. “Events like today showcase the hardware that we have in this battalion which is the HIMARS rocket system.”
Hendershot wanted to educate families about some aspects of the unit that might go unnoticed.
“There are so many different supporting elements that go into a battalion like this from fuelers, to food service, to the medical support, to signal support for our communications systems which are absolutely critical,” Hendershot said.
Three-person launcher teams demonstrated their capabilities by driving the HIMARS across a vast open field, at a safe distance from the crowd, and launching artillery rockets every 15 minutes throughout the morning.
“It’s a great morale booster for the troops to be able to see their family and to enjoy that experience with them,” said Capt. Nicholas Rinaldi, 121st fire direction officer. “And for the families, I think it’s broadening — it expands their knowledge of what their Soldier contributes and what they have to offer.
“This unit achieved battalion qualification today,” Rinaldi added. “We’ve exceeded the expectation for our training year.”
The 121st qualified 16 HIMARS launcher crews over the weekend, an accomplishment that hadn’t been achieved since 2011, and is a critical component to the unit’s readiness to perform its combat mission as the Army’s primary combat reserve.
Staff Sgt. Robert Rabe, a launcher team chief with the 121st, brought valuable experience to the exercise and shared his knowledge with the families while standing beside a HIMARS on display near the observation post.
“I think it gives a little bit of clarity,” Rabe said. “They actually get to see what we’ve been training for and it lets them understand the reasons why we do this.”
After seeing some of the unit’s capabilities in action, the reactions from family members and friends were positive, supportive and eye-opening.
“I think in the world today it’s especially important that our military knows that we support them especially our own Soldiers,” said Kelly Heckel, girlfriend to Sgt. Adam Payne, a launcher chief with the 121st.
Payne added, “I think it’s pretty hard to leave your family and go do the missions. When your family believes in it as much as you do, it helps.”
Payne had the support of five friends and family members travelling from areas such as Big Flats and Racine, Wisconsin to come and watch the event.
“I just could not be more proud of my son than I am today,” said Lauren Payne.
Kevin and Cathy Wahlgren, whose daughter serves with the 121st in Sussex Wisconsin, passed up tickets to a Wisconsin Badger football game so they could attend the event.
“Obviously for them to fulfill their mission they have to have support from their family and friends,” said Kevin Wahlgren, adding that he was fascinated by the exercise.
Wahlgren’s wife Cathy agreed. “We’ve heard somewhat from our daughter but I think until you really see the live fire you just don’t really envision it,” she said.
The unit is based out of Milwaukee, Plymouth and Sussex, Wisconsin, and has roots dating to Sept. 19, 1917, when it was organized from various Wisconsin National Guard units into the 121st Field Artillery Regiment. The 121st was created as part of the 32nd "Red Arrow" Division, which was constituted from the National Guard organizations of both Wisconsin and Michigan for service in World War I.
“It’s kind of a neat thing to realize that the folks that came before us were at World War I. We had troops in World War II, and this unit’s been engaged in operations in Iraq since about 2005,” Beilfuss added.
The battalion also sent two batteries to Afghanistan in 2012 and in 2014. Battery B deployed to Afghanistan and became the first National Guard field artillery battery to have a fire support mission there.
The Soldiers of the 121st showed an understanding of the importance of positive family support and the affect that it can have on the readiness of the unit, and the approximately 200 family members and friends who attended made the event a success.
The training was extremely good for the unit’s newest Soldiers.
Spc. Stefan Skorpinski, HIMARS driver with the 121st, conducted his first live fire exercise that day.
“It was amazing, it was a big rush,” Stefan said adding that he spent most of the day smiling from ear to ear.
Skorpinski talked about how complicated the effort of carrying out a live-fire exercise can be.
“Especially here where there are a lot of units moving around, you have air traffic and everything, you have to make sure your rockets are going to the designated target so everything’s safe,” he said. “After each drill I feel more and more prepared.”
“They say NCOs are the backbone of the Army, well the family is the backbone of the Soldier,” said Sgt. Alex Howland, launcher team member with the 121st. “We have a good commander right now and great NCO leadership.”
The event ended with a volley of multiple rocket launches from three HIMARS at once, a grand finale of sorts in a rare show for the families which demonstrated the battalion’s impressive capabilities.