MADISON, Wis. — The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 were a watershed moment in our nation’s history that forever changed the nation, its military, and the Wisconsin National Guard.
Eighteen years have passed since that fateful day, when two hijacked airliners slammed into the World Trade Center in New York City, another into the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and a fourth crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after passengers overcame the hijackers and brought the plane down.
As the world mourned the loss of approximately 3,000 lives, America’s military sprang into action. Across the nation, tens of thousands of men and women serving in the National Guard began reporting to their armories without orders to do so, unsure of what would come next, but they were ready to do whatever their nation would ask of them. And the nation would ask for much.
In the weeks and months that followed, a coalition of nations led by the United States invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban regime that harbored the Al Qaeda terrorists responsible for the attack, and in 2003, the Global War on Terrorism expanded to Iraq, where another U.S.-led coalition toppled Sadaam Hussein’s regime.
In the years since, tens of thousands of Wisconsin Army and Air National Guard Soldiers and Airmen and nearly every unit in the Wisconsin National Guard would mobilize to Iraq, Afghanistan, or other locations around the globe in support of their federal mission, forever transforming the National Guard from a strategic reserve of the United States Army and Air Force, to an operational reserve. The Guard would simultaneously continue its mission to support civil authorities here at home, as it responded to countless emergencies within the United States, including Operation Noble Eagle, which commenced Sept. 14, 2001. That operation mobilized thousands of National Guard and reserve personnel across the country to secure military installations, airports, and other critical infrastructure.
This morning, exactly 18 years to the minute of the first attack on September 11, 2001, dozens of Wisconsin National Guard personnel gathered for solemn reflection and remembrance at the 9/11 Memorial that now stands before the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs at its Joint Force Headquarters. The Soldiers, Airmen, and department employees paused for a moment of silence at 7:46 a.m. central time, the moment the first plane struck the north tower of the World Trade Center, before commemorating the day that changed the National Guard so significantly with a ruck march.
Tens of thousands of Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers deployed to combat theaters across the globe, and 10, including Spc. Michelle Witmer, Staff Sgt. Todd Olson, Spc. Charles Kaufman, Spc. Michael Wendling, Spc. Andrew Wallace, Cpl. Stephen Castner, Sgt. Ryan Jopek, Staff Sgt. Robert Basham, Master Sgt. Brian Naseman, and Sgt. Ryan Adams lost their lives overseas.
Wisconsin Army National Guard chaplain, Lt. Col. Doug Hedman offered a prayer to the Soldiers and Airmen that gathered for the ruck march near the 9/11 Memorial.
“Shock and horror captured us on that tragic day, Sept. 11,” he said. “It is now replaced with emptiness and a longing for an innocence that was lost. We come today remembering those who lost their lives in New York, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania. We also come remembering those who lost their lives while wearing the uniforms of one of the Armed Services, and we are forever mindful of the sacrifice of those who demonstrated the greatest love of all by laying down their lives for their friends and for our freedom.
“We pray that you would transform our world to be one of peace and justice for all, and we pray that you would transform our lives first to be that change agent in our world,” he added.
Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, Wisconsin’s adjutant general, thanked the Soldiers and Airmen for their service and dedication both now and in the years since Sept. 11. Dunbar said it was important to reflect and remember the tragedy of that day, but more important to look forward.
“We’re the National Guard. Citizen Soldiers, Citizen Airmen, citizen first, and it’s a tremendous thing for our country that men and women like you are willing to walk away from their plow, pick up a musket when required and do something to defend this country,” he said. “And the best thing about our nation, I believe, when the terrorists struck – we have a monument here commemorating the Pentagon and the World Trade Center – they thought by knocking down a few buildings they’d break our spirit. How foolish were they? Our country is strong today, and every one of us, civilian, military, lives a life of passion of their own choosing under the freedoms that our country gives.”
Command Chief Master Sergeant Thomas Safer, the senior enlisted advisor for the Wisconsin Air National Guard offered a similar sentiment before the march.
“Everything changed forever, and as a force and our whole way of life, we had to adapt,” Safer said. “But that’s what we do as Guardsmen, as Citizen Airmen and Citizen Soldiers. We adapt, we overcome, and we prevail in the face of any challenge that is put in front of us. You Airmen and Soldiers are part of the less than one percent of this country that served. Less than one percent. You’re in this exclusive group that does a job that most people don’t want to do or can’t do, and that is something that’s very special. And you should be very proud of that.”
On the 18th anniversary of the attacks that launched the nation into war – a full generation later – more than 1,000 Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers and Airmen are deployed to Afghanistan and the surrounding theater of operations. Nearly 400 Soldiers with the 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry remain on the ground in Afghanistan, while another 400 from the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry mobilized in July for their upcoming deployment there. Another 250 Airmen with the 115th Fighter Wing deployed to the region in July as well.
The sustained period of combat operations that followed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 meant the Army and Air Force would call on the Soldiers and Airmen of the National Guard more than ever to fight alongside them in combat. The National Guard acquitted itself well sending hundreds of thousands of troops to support the war effort and demonstrating its readiness in the process. In fact, National Guard and reserve units made up nearly half of the total force that went to Iraq and Afghanistan, and now the Army and the Air Force rely on the National Guard more than ever as trusted partners and members of the military’s total force.
The Guard’s sterling record of service in the Global War on Terrorism changed the course of the National Guard forever. The Guard has a long history of service to the nation dating back to 1636 when colonists mustered the first militias in Massachusetts and were later instrumental in defeating British forces during the American Revolution.
The Wisconsin National Guard has its own impressive lineage dating back to the Civil War, when thousands of Wisconsin volunteers joined the ranks of units like the famed Iron Brigade to preserve the Union. Again, during the First World War, the now famous 32nd “Red Arrow” Division etched its name into history on the battlefields of France, before again playing a major role in the Pacific Theater during World War II as it spent more days in combat – 654 – than any other division in the war fighting through New Guinea and the Philippines.
While the Wisconsin National Guard’s youngest Soldiers, now 18 years old, were not even born on Sept. 11, 2001, and many of its junior members have no recollection of the day’s events, the Wisconsin National Guard will never forget that day in September, 2001, when the world, and the National Guard changed forever.
For it was after 9/11 that the Guard’s role transformed into the operational reserve it is today. The National Guard’s importance to the nation and its respective states will only continue to grow, and the Citizen Soldier and Airman will remain always ready, and always there to serve the citizens of our states and nation as a proud member of the total force.