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Senior Wisconsin National Guard leaders travelled to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Feb. 25 to visit approximately 65 Wisconsin Soldiers preparing to deploy to Iraq in support of Operation Inherent Resolve with the 101st Airborne Division.

The Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldiers are assigned to Detachment 1, Headquarters, 101st Airborne Division Multi-Component Unit (DMCU) and are part of a first-ever Army initiative to integrate Soldiers from the National Guard and Reserve into a single multi-component unit alongside their active duty brethren.

Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, Wisconsin’s adjutant general, Brig. Gen. Mark Anderson, the deputy adjutant general for Army, Command Sgt. Maj. Bradley Shields, the state’s senior enlisted advisor, and Command Sgt. Maj. Daniel Sullivan, of the Milwaukee-based 157th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, visited the deploying Guardsmen to bid farewell before the 101st embarked on its nine-month deployment to Iraq. They also attended a formal ceremony at which the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) headquarters cased its colors in preparation for the deployment.

sm160225-Z-EJ222-044.jpgPrior to the ceremony, the group of senior leaders offered words of encouragement to the deploying Guardsmen.

“We have two missions,” Dunbar told one group of Soldiers. “We’re the first military responder in the homeland, and we’re the primary combat reserve of the United States Army, and what you’re doing right here is fulfilling that second mission.”

Dunbar said the partnership with the 101st proves that the Army can trust the National Guard to seamlessly integrate into active federal service with the same professionalism and expertise of the active component.

“What they got was Soldiers every bit as fine as active duty Soldiers,” Dunbar said of the 101st. “That’s exactly what people expect. It doesn’t surprise me. It doesn’t surprise the leadership of Wisconsin. I know it doesn’t surprise you, but you’re breaking down walls and building that trust between the active component and the National Guard.”

sm160225-Z-EJ222-028.jpgBrig. Gen. Anderson spoke of how the DMCU was born out of cuts to active duty division headquarters units that resulted in the loss of personnel. The Army turned to the National Guard to fill the void, he said, and specifically to the Wisconsin National Guard.

“There was a recognition that we have skills comparable, or in some cases, even better than the folks in positions that had been vacated within the various division headquarters,” Anderson said. “When Wisconsin was approached to be a part of that pilot program, the first in the nation, we jumped at that opportunity.”

Anderson acknowledged that all Soldiers join the military for different reasons, but all swore an oath because of the call to serve.

“For some reason you wanted to serve your country, and you are now getting that opportunity at the national level and in an area that is in dire need,” he said.

Command Sgt. Maj. Shields urged the Soldiers to take advantage of the opportunities presented to Soldiers on a deployment and to master their individual jobs.

sm160225-Z-EJ222-130.jpg“It’s not an individual effort,” he said. “It’s a team effort, but it’s a culmination of little pieces of parts that everybody does. So whether you’re the mechanic or doing administration, every Soldier’s job is important.”

“From all 7,400 of us, we’re all behind you,” he added. “Good luck, and be safe.”

An Army division headquarters draws from a wide array of military occupation specialties ranging from infantry and planners, to logistics, communications and supply specialists.

Sgt. Leroy Bicks, of Milwaukee, is a food service operations noncommissioned officer embarking on his seventh mobilization and fourth overseas.

“I’m looking forward to reliving the experience and being deployed again,” he said.

Bicks is also relishing the opportunity to mentor a fellow food service specialist on her first deployment and serving with the storied 101st.

“It’s a privilege and an honor to be with this unit,” he said. “It’s going to be a pretty good experience.”

Spc. Barbara Thao, a signal support specialist from Wausau, Wisconsin, and a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, held a similar sentiment.

“I feel really special to actually be given this chance to be in this unit, because not many National Guardsmen can say they were a part of the 101st,” Thao, who is on her first deployment, said.

Maj. Eric Krueger, who returned from a deployment to the Middle East with the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 32nd Military Engagement Team last year, is assigned to the strategic planning section of the division headquarters. He worked diligently on the campaign plan to get the unit overseas. When he arrives in Iraq, he will conduct planning in a combined joint operations center with Iraqi forces.

For that, Krueger, a native of Mayville, Wisconsin, will draw upon the extensive knowledge and experience he gained working with the Jordanian military as part of the 32nd Military Engagement Team’s mission.

He was excited to serve with the Screaming Eagles of the 101st and to continue the long lineage the division has in Wisconsin dating back to the Civil War. The iconic “Screaming Eagle” that adorns the division’s famed unit patch is a depiction of Wisconsin’s Old Abe – the mascot adopted by the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment during the American Civil War. The men of the 8th Wisconsin carried Old Abe into battle alongside the national and regimental colors during the unit’s campaigns.

At one point shortly after the division’s formation, the 101st was headquartered in Milwaukee as part of the Organized Reserves, where Old Abe first became associated with the division.

“We’re part of the 101st, and we’re bringing Old Abe back on our shoulders,” he said.

So far, the integration of Wisconsin National Guard and active duty Soldiers has been almost seamless, Krueger said.

“You always have that stigma of, ‘it’s us versus them, active versus Guard,’ but when we stepped off the bus, the 101st active duty guys couldn’t tell the difference between the Wisconsin National Guard guys and the active duty, because we fit right in,” he said. “We showed up mentally prepared, physically able and medically ready too.”

That integration is crucial as the nation is relying on the division headquarters to complete a complex and challenging mission in Iraq. The Army hopes to strengthen the multi-component unit concept, and the 101st’s deployment marks the Pentagon’s first combat test of that concept. The unit will be responsible for the command and control of approximately 4,000 coalition troops from 18 different nations, where it will replace the 82nd Airborne Division headquarters as the Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command in Iraq.

In that capacity, they will lead the effort to train and advise the Iraqi army in its fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

“Screaming Eagles, I’m not going to sugar-coat it, the mission you’ve been given is extremely challenging and I think probably one of the most difficult our Army has faced since 2001,” Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend the commanding general of the XVIII Airborne Corps said during the colors casing ceremony at Fort Campbell. “The dynamics at play in Iraq and Syria are incredibly complex and ever-changing.”

Maj. Gen. Gary J. Volesky, the commander of the 101st Airborne Division, said “Our partners in the region need our help in stamping out ISIL. Our nation’s security and that of our allies depends on it.”

“Today we once again build upon the phenomenal reputation of those great Soldiers that went before us,” he said later. “As we have since 1942, Screaming Eagle Soldiers have always answered our nation’s call to duty with pride and tenacity. This tough mission is our next rendezvous with destiny, and we are ready for it.”

The Wisconsin National Guard continues to play a role in military operations in the Middle East despite troop drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Besides the Soldiers of the DMCU, which left Wisconsin in early January, the Milwaukee-based 128th Air Refueling Wing remains deployed supporting air refueling operations over the region.