More than 1,500 troops mobilized or returned from deployment and hundreds served on state active duty in the wake of major storms. Some Wisconsin National Guardsmen earned lofty honors, and new commanders took the reins as the organization engaged with the community about potentially bringing F-35s to the state. All-in-all, 2019 was a momentous year for the Wisconsin National Guard, and a bright future awaits.
As 2019 draws to a close, the Wisconsin National Guard looks forward to an even greater 2020, here’s a look back at some of the greatest moments from the year that was.
The year began with a change in leadership at the state level as Gov. Tony Evers became the state’s new governor and commander-in-chief of the Wisconsin National Guard. As it has at inaugurations throughout the state’s history, the Wisconsin National Guard played a critical role in planning and executing the inauguration and provided a joint Color Guard along with the sweet sounds of the 132nd Army Band.
January also brought welcome news to families eagerly awaiting the return of deployed troops as the nearly 30 Soldiers of the Milwaukee-based 157th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade’s Military Engagement Team returned from a year-long mobilization to the Middle East that included engagements in Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Simultaneously, a team of Soldiers from the 112th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment returned in February from a mobilization to U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo in Cuba.
Three of the four major subordinate commands in the Wisconsin Army National Guard welcomed new commanders in 2019, as Col. Carl Meredith took command in February of the 426th Regiment Regional Training Institute at Fort McCoy, which hosts the state’s officer and warrant officer candidate school in addition to one of the nation’s premier field artillery schools, a master resilience training course, and many other professional development courses. Col. John Morgen subsequently took command of the state’s most diverse brigade when he took the helm of the 64th Troop Command in May, and Col. Matthew Beilfuss took command of the “Iron Brigade” – the 157th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade during a ceremony at Milwaukee’s historic Richards Street Armory in August.
The Wisconsin Army National Guard’s lone brigade not to welcome a new commander was the 32nd “Red Arrow” Infantry Brigade Combat Team, which mobilized approximately a third of its roughly 3,000 Soldiers for deployments overseas. The Appleton-based 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry mobilized nearly 400 Soldiers for deployment to Afghanistan in late 2018 and returned to Wisconsin a year later in late 2019 after making history as the first Red Arrow unit to serve in Afghanistan and the first National Guard unit to serve as a security element for the Army’s new security force assistance brigades. Their Red Arrow brethren from the Eau Claire-based 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry followed in their footsteps after mobilizing nearly 400 more Soldiers in July for a similar deployment to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Red Arrow’s headquarters embarked on a historic mission of its own when approximately 160 Soldiers from across Wisconsin assigned at Camp Douglas deployed to Ukraine in September as part of Joint Multinational Training Group – Ukraine. In that role, Red Arrow Soldiers serve as the headquarters element overseeing a group of multinational “partner and advise training teams” – or PATTs – based at the International Peacekeeping and Security Center in western Ukraine.
The high operational tempo continued throughout the rest of the Wisconsin National Guard in 2019 as well. More than 350 Soldiers from the Milwaukee-based 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery and 108th Forward Support Company concluded a dynamic fire support mission that spanned 15 locations from the Mediterranean to Afghanistan and supported three concurrent military operations in the U.S. Central Command theater. Not only did they play a critical role in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, they also took the fight to the Taliban in Afghanistan and trained alongside partner militaries in Jordan, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates.
In the fall, nearly 150 Soldiers from Spooner and Ashland’s 829th Engineer Company embarked on its own mobilization and headed to the Middle East, where it will take on a construction mission.
The Army was not alone in shouldering the heavy load of mobilizations the Wisconsin National Guard endured in 2019. Approximately 250 Airmen and F-16s from Madison’s 115th Fighter Wing and 176th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron made a major impact in the skies over Afghanistan during a four month combat rotation there. The 115th’s commander, Col. Erik Peterson received a personal note from Brig. Gen. R. Scott Jobe, the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing commander, regarding the Airmen while they were deployed. “The dedication of your Airmen in the fighter squadron to the flight line is truly inspiring,” Jobe said. “I witnessed attention to detail, devotion to duty, and exquisite discipline in all things. Your team taught me the latest and greatest in tactics. I know what right looks like, and the leadership of that team is right. The 176th EFS is the finest F-16 unit I have encountered.”
The 115th Fighter Wing simultaneously continued its participation in the process that could potentially bring F-35s to Madison to replace the aging F-16s the unit currently flies. The National Guard completed a draft of its environmental impact statement and solicited public comments, which concluded with a site visit from the assistant secretary of the Air Force in November. The unit expects a final record of decision from the Secretary of the Air Force in early 2020 on whether F-35s will be based in Madison.
Other Airmen from the 128th Air Refueling Wing in Milwaukee continued worldwide deployments throughout the year, while Volk Field Combat Readiness Training Center celebrated its 65th anniversary serving the state and nation as an air base. One of its tenant units, the 128th Air Control Squadron, also unveiled a new state-of-the art operations center in April, which continues to set Volk CRTC apart as one of the nation’s premier training areas. The unsurpassed quality of Volk CRTC and its surrounding airspace was on display at the twice annual Northern Lightning exercise, which brought the world’s most advanced aircraft from each of the armed services to participate in a massive national exercise that simulated combat with a near-peer threat.
While 2019 marked a heavy year of overseas deployments in support of its federal mission, the Wisconsin National Guard remained busy supporting its domestic mission as well. The year began with the return of nearly 200 troops that served on the southwest border in Arizona and New Mexico from June 2018 to March 2019. The Wisconsin National Guard’s highly trained and highly specialized 54th Civil Support Team, responded to a real-world incident in Manitowoc, where it assisted civil authorities responding to a home explosion with identifying unknown and hazardous substances. The Wisconsin Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear Enhanced Response Force Package – or CERFP – made up of engineer, decontamination, medical, and communications units from the Army and Air National Guard also validated, in the event its specialized services would be needed in Wisconsin or elsewhere.
In late July, devastating storms and high winds cut a wide swath of destruction across northern Wisconsin. But Soldiers and Airmen from the Wisconsin National Guard jumped into action at the request of local authorities that needed help clearing debris and downed trees from roadways, conducting damage assessments, distributing potable water to residents without power, and more.
Just weeks after concluding that mission, Hurricane Dorian lurked ominously off the coast of Florida and threatened to wreak devastation on the panhandle and the southeastern United States. Thankfully, the storm changed course and largely spared the U.S. mainland, but not before 450 Soldiers from the 132nd Brigade Support Battalion mobilized in a matter of hours on Labor Day weekend to armories across the state after receiving a request for assistance from Florida. Ultimately, Florida did not require their services, but the Guard’s readiness for any mission, anytime, anywhere, was on display.
That sort of readiness was similarly on display again in September, when just weeks after conducting an aerial search and rescue training exercise with civil authorities at Devils Lake, Wisconsin Army National Guard aviators and the Baraboo Fire Department rescued an injured hiker on the same Devils Lake bluffs.
And while the Wisconsin National Guard accomplished a lot collectively in 2019, many of its individual Soldiers and Airmen achieved significant recognitions and awards for their service and professionalism over the course of the year.
In addition to the Wisconsin Army National Guard earning the coveted Army Communities of Excellence Award overall winner award for the fourth time since 2001, the organization also took home Department of Defense awards for environmental stewardship in 2019.
Capt. Cody Anderson, of B Battery, 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery was among one of just 30 officers nationwide across all components of the Army to receive the prestigious General Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award. Meanwhile, Capt. Bradley Kelly from the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 128th Air Control Squadron received the Theodore Roosevelt Leadership Award from the National Guard Association of the United States.
They, along with the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s Soldier and Noncomissioned Officer of the Year – Sgt. Alexander Wilkinson-Johnson, of Headquarters Troop, 1st Squadron, 105th Cavalry, and Sgt. Jason Wagner, of Detachment 1, Headquarters Battery, 1st Battalion, 120th Field Artillery respectively – the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s Airmen of the Year, and the 2019 inductees into the Wisconsin Army National Guard Hall of Honor and the Wisconsin Air National Guard Hall of Fame, were all honored at an awards ceremony in September for their accomplishments.
The year also brought about inactivation of a unit with a storied lineage in Wisconsin military history, as the 257th Brigade Support Battalion, headquartered in Oak Creek, with armories in Kenosha, and Whitewater cased its colors for the final time due to an Army force structure change.
2020 promises to be an equally demanding and rewarding year. The organization already announced two mobilizations for Wisconsin Army National Guard units this winter, and more will follow. And as always, the Wisconsin National Guard will stand Always Ready and Always There to serve Wisconsin during times of state emergency.