The Wisconsin State Assembly honored nearly 200 Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers and Airmen that served on the nation’s Southwest border April 9 with the Assembly’s Hometown Hero Award.
The National Guard troops deployed to Arizona and New Mexico beginning in June 2018 until March 2019, when their mission concluded.
“The Wisconsin State Assembly has a longstanding tradition of recognizing hometown heroes,” Rep. Robin Vos, Wisconsin’s State Assembly Speaker, said. “These are individuals and groups who exemplify the very best traits of Wisconsinites – service, volunteerism, and bravery. I can’t see anyone more deserving of this award than the men and women of the Wisconsin National Guard.”
Vos, who represents Wisconsin’s 63rd State Assembly District, thanked the Guard Soldiers and Airmen for their service.
“We don’t say it often enough, but for all of us who are able to sleep at night knowing that brave men and women all around the country and frankly all around the world are protecting our freedom, our gratitude on behalf of not just the Assembly, but the Legislature, as a whole state government and the entire state of Wisconsin, let’s give them one more final round of applause and say, ‘Thank you,’” he said.
Rep. Tony Kurtz, himself an Army veteran who now represents Wisconsin’s 50th State Assembly District, spoke of the service and sacrifice of the Wisconsin National Guard as it worked with the Arizona and New Mexico National Guards as they supported the U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security and the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol in securing the nation’s Southwest border.
“From June of 2018 to March of 2019, Soldiers and Airmen voluntarily put their jobs, their families, and their homes on hold to support Arizona and New Mexico,” Kurtz said. “178 Wisconsin Army National Guard and 11 Wisconsin Air National Guard participated in this program with overwhelming results.”
Over the course of the nine-month mission, the Wisconsin National Guard deployed four separate force packages. Those force packages were credited in assisting with the apprehension of more than 12,500 people attempting to enter the country, seizing more than 8,000 pounds of marijuana, and 200 pounds of methamphetamines.
While deployed to the region, Wisconsin National Guard troops did not work directly on the border or interact directly with anyone attempting to enter the country. They instead served in support and administrative roles with the goal of freeing up border agents and law enforcement agencies to devote more personnel and resources to patrolling the border.
Gov. Tony Evers, the Wisconsin National Guard’s commander-in-chief, was also on hand to express his thanks and appreciation to the recently returned Soldiers and Airmen.
“I am absolutely pleased to have the opportunity to recognize the brave men and women of the Wisconsin National Guard for their service, not only to the state, but also to the nation,” Evers said. “I know giving up their home lives and their jobs is an important issue with the National Guard, and they always rise above that, and I really appreciate the great work you have done.”
The troops were grateful for the experience of serving on the Southwest border. More than 40 were on hand in the Assembly chambers to receive the Hometown Hero Award in person.
“It was a good time,” Spc. Hunter Wiest, a Soldier assigned to the 229th Engineer Company, said of the mission. “It felt good to make a difference down there and help them out.”
Wiest said he assisted U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents with x-rays of vehicles and helped seize several hundred pounds of drugs during his seven months in Arizona.
Spc. Jordan Westphal, of Company B, 132nd Brigade Support Battalion in Mauston, also said he had a good experience on the mission during his nine-month tenure. Westphal is a welder and assisted with repairing damaged wall sections.
Maj. Christopher Szopinski, who now serves as the personnel officer for the 426th Regiment and Regional Training Institute at Fort McCoy, said the mission was a great opportunity for those who served on it.
“It was great,” he said. “We did a lot of good stuff down there, helped out the agents to remove them from positions that were more of a support role so they could take an active role patrolling the actual border. So we were able to assist them in various locations, various jobs in order to get them out on the border.”
Szopinski oversaw a sector managing personnel operations for Guard troops supporting the mission. Within his sector, Guard troops filled maintenance, IT, and administrative positions in addition to working in camera rooms, or working on roads and other infrastructure projects.
Wisconsin Army and Air National Guard aviators also supported the mission. At one point, three UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and more than 20 Soldiers made up of crews from aviation units in West Bend and Madison assisted.
The crews provided Customs and Border Patrol agents with a highly efficient mode of transportation to assist in the interdiction of human and drug trafficking, according to 1st Lt. Cody Biedrzycki. The aviation unit’s presence gave border agents coverage over the weekends, a luxury they had not previously enjoyed.
“Within a month of our operations here, we have already seen human and drug trafficking tactics change,” he said in a February interview from Arizona. “Groups are no longer traveling in larger packs. They have broken up into traveling in sizes less than 3 and spreading out, making it harder to work with limited resources and fuel constraints.”
The Wisconsin Black Hawk crews also were able to assist the Arizona Army National Guard with training their crews, which are in the midst of a transition from AH-64 Apache helicopters to Black Hawks.
“We have supported the Arizona units in the progression of new crew chiefs in their flying duties,” said Sgt. 1st Class David Niesen, a platoon sergeant in the 1st Battalion, 147th Aviation in Madison. “As a unit just transitioning to the UH-60, they have many personnel to train and the availability of trainers is critical to make that change successful.”
Master Sgt. Benjamin Ponti said they also offered maintenance expertise to the Arizona National Guard during their time there.
“We have assisted Arizona with UH-60 maintenance and readiness,” Ponti said in February. “For example, special tools lists, inspection tools, techniques, and arms prep info. Our job is to maintain three UH-60M’s for daily missions while managing limited downtime. Teamwork here has been outstanding with everyone helping where needed.”
Most importantly, the Soldiers and Airmen who served on the mission enhanced their own personal and training readiness for future Wisconsin National Guard missions in support of the Guard’s state mission as the first military responder and its federal mission as the primary combat reserve of the Army and Air Force.
“The training value this unit is receiving with the environment and dynamic mission is unparalleled,” Biedrzycki said. “Enlisted soldiers are gaining valuable experience maintaining aircraft and meeting an aggressive flight schedule, making them valuable assets during other state or federal missions. The flying is much more challenging considering the environment and cannot be replicated in the Midwest. Leaders are experiencing the planning and operational demands in a non-hostile environment.”
Lt. Col. Scott Bush, who led the aviation mission, agreed.
“Excellent opportunity to develop leadership by working through the challenges of being away from the battalion, major subordinate command, and state,” he said. “Great opportunity for senior commanders to exercise mission command principles.”