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Retired Maj. Gen. Al Wilkening, left, responds to applause after receiving a Distinguished Service Award April 18 in Madison, Wis. Wilkening was Wisconsin’s adjutant general from 2002-07. Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, right, has served as adjutant general since 2007. Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs photo by Vaughn R. Larson

MADISON, Wis. — The man who commanded the Wisconsin National Guard during some of its most active and trying days was honored during a ceremony April 16 at Joint Force Headquarters’ Witmer Hall.

Retired Maj. Gen. Al Wilkening — Wisconsin’s adjutant general from 2002 through 2007, and the deputy adjutant general thrust into duty on Sept. 11, 2001 when Maj. Gen. James Blaney was undergoing scheduled surgery — received the Wisconsin National Guard Association Distinguished Service Award.

Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, Wilkening’s successor as Wisconsin’s adjutant general, noted that Wilkening joined the Air Force as a pilot in 1968.

“That took a lot of guts,” Dunbar said. “They didn’t just give pilot training slots out — you had to be pretty special to get one. You had to have perfect vision to get in the door — and pilot training is hard. If you weren’t damn-near perfect you weren’t getting into the program.”

Not only did Wilkening get into the pilot training program, Dunbar pointed out, but after a year he was teaching it. During his career he tallied more than 3,000 flying hours as a command pilot in the T-41, T-37, T-38, O-2A, OA-37 and A-10 aircraft.

Wilkening joined the Wisconsin Air National Guard in 1973, something he said was his goal the last three years he was in the Air Force.

“Number one, they had just won the William Tell — they were the best fighter unit in the world back then,” Wilkening said. What was at that time the 176th Fighter Interceptor Squadron — the precursor to the 115th Fighter Wing — won the William Tell Meet, an air-to-air rocketry competition, in 1972.

“I joined the Guard and went to my first Wisconsin National Guard Association conference down in Lake Geneva,” Wilkening continued. “Here were all these young aviators in their red flight suits — they had custom flight suits to tell the entire world that they had won the William Tell. And I wanted to be part of that organization.”

Dunbar remarked that Wilkening’s term as adjutant general came during a critical time in the Wisconsin National Guard’s history, when the global war on terror was still in its early days.

“The early deployments, the first KIAs that we’ve had in a long period of time — all of that,” Dunbar said, explaining that under Wilkening the Wisconsin National Guard developed the framework for managing deployments as well as when Soldiers were killed overseas.

“Not easy things to do,” Dunbar observed, adding that he still reaches out to Wilkening for advice.

Wilkening said Dunbar and the current Wisconsin National Guard command staff have led the organization to “bigger and better things than I could ever have imagined.

“I’ve watched this organization grow and grow and become more and more of the benchmark organization it is today,” he continued. “There is no finer organization than the Wisconsin National Guard — Army and Air.”