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The commander-in-chief of the Wisconsin National Guard and other senior Guard leaders paid tribute to a group of Soldiers that recently returned from a deployment to the Middle East during a Feb. 12 Freedom Salute ceremony in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.

Gov. Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, and others were on hand at the Osthoff Resort to salute the 32 Soldiers from the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 2nd Battalion, 135th Aviation Regiment that returned to the Badger State from Kuwait in December.

An element of the West Bend, Wisconsin-based aero-medevac unit, which flies UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, deployed in support of Operations Inherent Resolve and Spartan Shield to provide aerial medevac capabilities and maintenance support to American and coalition forces operating in the region.

The unit ultimately logged more than 1,200 flight hours during their seven-month deployment, responded to 14 medevac missions and trained hundreds of service members on aeromedical evacuation operations, while the unit’s maintenance component kept the helicopters at a high state of operational readiness throughout the mission.

The unit’s commander, Capt. Casey Voss, praised the Soldiers for their accomplishments while in theater.

“To the families, your loved ones aren’t the type to brag about their accomplishments, and these Soldiers are too strong-headed to admit it, but they did have a significant impact on operations both in Kuwait and Iraq and are responsible for making our task force – Task Force Pale Rider – successful,” he said. “Our Soldiers truly made the extraordinary look ordinary.”

sm160212 Z AH525 02Voss went on to thank the families for their love and support throughout the deployment.

“For the families and loved ones, you truly are something special,” he said. “From the time we were notified, to the time we left, we had four months to say goodbye and figure out how to be on your own. Not to mention a few of us had babies on the way.”

The state’s senior leadership also praised the unit for its accomplishments overseas.

“The numbers and the statements in regards to your performance individually and collectively does not surprise me, because you are Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers,” Brig. Gen. Mark Anderson, the deputy adjutant general for Army, told the Soldiers and their families. “You carry with you a level of professionalism, the Midwest work ethic and everything that comes with that.”

Dunbar also expressed his pride for the unit’s service in the Middle East, noting the National Guard’s unique dual-mission.

“We are the first military responders here in the homeland when Gov. Walker needs us to respond during an emergency,” he said. “And we’re the primary combat reserve of the United States Army. You’ve just executed the second mission flawlessly. That is the hallmark of the Wisconsin National Guard.”

Command Sgt. Maj. Bradley Shields, the state’s senior enlisted advisor, urged the Soldiers and their families to be patient with their ongoing reintegration into civilian life.

sm160212-Z-AH525-01.jpg“Reintegration phase doesn’t end once you get off the plane, and it doesn’t end after tonight,” Shields said. “It’s an ongoing process. We have so many resources out there to help Soldiers and families through challenging times. You’ve changed, life has gone on back home, and it’s a process to try and get everything back together again.”

In introducing Gov. Walker, Dunbar noted that the National Guard, local communities, the state and the nation all stand with the men and women who wear the uniform.

“I’m proud of you, your community is proud of you, and there’s no better example of that than having your own commander-in-chief here tonight to welcome you home,” he said.

Walker thanked the Soldiers for their service and sacrifice while pointing out the cost of freedom.

“It’s endowed by our Creator, defined by documents like our Constitution, but it’s defended by you, by the men and women who proudly wear the uniform of this great country,” the governor said. “So not just tonight, but every day, we say thank you to you and all that you represent here in this state and across the country – both those serving today and the other great veterans who served before you.”

“We just appreciate all that you have done, and we appreciate your willingness – not only now on this recent deployment – to continue to serve here in the state, called again at some point in the future to do it again for this great country,” he said. “Thank you for what you do, Soldiers. Thank you family members for being here tonight. May God bless each and every one of you.”

The Soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 135th Aviation returned to Wisconsin in mid-December after seven months overseas. The unit previously deployed to Iraq in 2010 in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn.

Military operations in the Middle East continue despite troop drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan. As part of the nation’s primary combat reserve, the unit’s Soldiers are an example of the critical role the Wisconsin National Guard continues to play in global military operations. The Milwaukee-based 128th Air Refueling Wing remains deployed supporting air refueling operations over the Middle East. Meanwhile, Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers with Detachment 1, Headquarters, 101st Airborne Division Multi-Component Unit left Wisconsin in early January to deploy to the Middle East.