MADISON, Wis. — Approximately three dozen Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldiers arrived at Dane County Regional Airport June 6, following several months in Afghanistan.
The Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry mobilized for deployment in July 2019. The 128th Infantry in Afghanistan performed a “guardian angel” mission, providing force protection for the U.S. Army’s 3rd Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) during numerous engagements between advisors, other coalition troops, contractors and Afghan troops.
This is the second group of 128th Infantry Soldiers to return early from their deployment — approximately 150 Soldiers from the battalion returned to Wisconsin April 28. A planned drawdown of forces from Afghanistan resulted in the early return for these Soldiers. Approximately 300 Soldiers from the 128th Infantry remain in Afghanistan.
Because the Soldiers flew to a civilian airport rather than a military base, they traveled in civilian clothing. Wisconsin National Guard members on hand to welcome the Soldiers back to Wisconsin wore face coverings and practiced other recommended safety measures during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Since they left about a year ago things have changed in the United States,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Rafael Conde, the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s senior enlisted leader. “We’re still dealing with a pandemic. We’ve got a nearly 1,300 Soldiers and Airmen on pandemic response.”
Conde noted that the Wisconsin National Guard also has more than 1,200 Soldiers and Airmen on state active duty for civil disturbance.
“We’re a very busy National Guard,” he said, adding that if there had been a formal ceremony for the returning Soldiers, he would have told them “what you left a year ago is not what you’re going to come back and see this year.”
Lt. Col. Mark Brooks, chaplain for the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team — the parent organization for the 128th Infantry — said he would caution the returning Soldiers against making major life-changing decisions right away.
“You’re getting recalibrated with your family and friends and your civilian life — it’s not the greatest time to be making huge life decisions,” Brooks said. “Be patient, and don’t let the beautiful picture that you had in your head necessarily govern how the next few weeks go.”
Brig. Gen. Joane Mathews, Wisconsin’s deputy adjutant general for Army, said she had spoken with some of the family members of the returning Soldiers at the airport and thanked them for supporting their Guard member.
“If the Soldiers don’t have their support, they won’t be able to complete the jobs they have to do,” Mathews said.
Mathews also said she would like to thank the returning Soldiers for taking time away from their families and civilian lives to accomplish their mission overseas “and making us proud. I wish I could shake their hand, but for now it’s just an elbow bump.”
Conde agreed that the 128th Infantry had made the Wisconsin National Guard proud, and continues to do so.
“They set the standard,” Conde said of the 128th, along with the 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry Regiment, who performed the same mission before turning it over to the 128th last year. The 3rd Battalion, 126th Infantry Regiment of the Michigan Army National Guard — but also part of the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team — will take over the Guardian Angel mission from the 128th Infantry this year. “I think it’s going to be tough for anybody else to follow that standard — and that’s a great thing.”