Col. Todd Nehls of the Wisconsin Army National Guard had just completed a year-long tour of duty for the National Guard Bureau, to be the Wisconsin National Guard’s subject matter expert on terrorism, shortly before the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
“I was in disbelief,” Nehls said when he learned that terrorists had flown passenger jetliners into both World Trade Center towers. “Though this was a scenario talked about for years, few listed it as probable.”
Retired Maj. Gen. Fred Sloan, who commanded the Madison-based 115th Fighter Wing on Sept. 11, 2001, recalled that fateful day with clarity.
“Our lives were changed forever on that particular day,” Sloan said. “In many ways for us, even to this day, it’s only made us stronger.”
After cancelling the morning flight schedule, Sloan and his leadership team realized that, until further guidance came from the National Guard Bureau or the Pentagon, they were on their own. Sloan ordered a convoy to bring live munitions from Volk Field near Camp Douglas, Wisconsin to Truax Field in Madison, and by that evening six F-16 fighter jets were ready to fight, if the order came.
Pilots brought in mattresses and bedding and spent the night at the 176th Fighter Squadron — part of the 115th Fighter Wing — in case a night launch would be called. The next day, they did perform a combat air patrol over Chicago, as it was still uncertain on Sept. 12 if all aircraft from Europe had been successfully recalled. The F-16s could reach Chicago in 15 minutes.
“Over those several days, we just stood by and had alert airplanes that should be ready to launch in 15 minutes or less if we got the call,” Sloan said.
In the coming days and weeks, the 115th Fighter Wing would conduct patrols over Chicago, Washington, D.C. and even New York City under Operation Noble Eagle, the military’s homeland defense mission which began Sept. 12, 2001.
“We’ve been on alert since that period of time until this day,” Sloan said. “We’re still one of the top units for location in the Midwest, and have a permanent mission of air sovereignty with two airplanes on alert ready to launch within 15 minutes.”
The Milwaukee-based 128th Air Refueling Wing was also conducting missions in support of Operation Noble Eagle as early as Sept. 12, 2001. By Sept. 20, members of the refueling wing volunteered to deploy to Moron Air Base in Spain, and other locations, as part of ongoing expeditionary combat support.
After President George W. Bush ordered the National Guard to provide security at 422 airports nationwide, Gov. Scott McCallum ordered 90 members of the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 32nd Military Police Company to state active duty Sept. 27. They were assigned to airports in Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Appleton, Mosinee, La Crosse and Oshkosh. Nehls was designated the commander of the Wisconsin National Guard’s airport security mission, called Task Force Badger.
“The men and women of the Wisconsin National Guard performed remarkably,” Nehls recalled. “We were complimented and rated as one of the best among all the states and territories because of the way we trained, equipped and managed our operations.”
Other Wisconsin National Guard members replaced the 32nd MP Company on airport security duty, and the mission ended in May 2002 as local law enforcement took over security duties.
The 128th Air Control Squadron began a nearly four-month mission in late October 2001, setting up a mobile radar site in McHenry County, Illinois to provide the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) with a real-time picture of all aircraft near Chicago.
Portions of additional Wisconsin National Guard units would mobilize over the course of the next 12 months, some performing stateside missions and others deploying to Afghanistan. The demand for Wisconsin National Guard troops would ramp up with Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
The 32nd Military Police Company was among the first Wisconsin Army National Guard units to deploy to Iraq, where they would patrol the streets of Baghdad. As a testament to the rigors of combat the unit endured, the 32nd MP Company earned 23 Purple Heart medals and 22 Bronze Stars during its 14-month deployment. Spc. Michelle Witmer was killed in a small-arms fire and roadside bomb attack in Baghdad on April 9, 2004. She was the first Wisconsin Army National Guard member killed in combat since World War II, and the first National Guard female Soldier killed in combat.
The 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, with units across western Wisconsin, mobilized to deploy to Iraq on May 8, 2004 — the first Wisconsin National Guard infantry unit to deploy to a combat zone since World War II. Staff Sgt. Todd Olson of Company C died Dec. 27 in Tikrit, Iraq from wounds suffered while on patrol the day prior by an improvised explosive device in Samarra, Iraq. He was the first “Red Arrow” Soldier to die in combat since World War II. A patrol base at Samarra bore his name until 2009, when it was turned over to Iraqi officials.
“We have won this war because of men like Staff Sgt. Todd Olson,” Lt. Col. Samuel Whitehurst, commander of the active duty 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, said during the July 9, 2009 ceremony.
Spc. Charles Kaufman, also of Company C, 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, was killed by an improvised explosive device in Baghdad June 26.
The 115th Fighter Wing would deploy 12 aircraft and more than 300 Airmen to Iraq in November 2004, providing close air support in theater.
“Our aircraft were equipped with precise munitions delivery capability,” Sloan explained. “These were not ‘dumb bombs’ — the pilots could actually direct these right on a target, right in somebody’s window. We were asked for by name over there — they would request that particular squadron in many cases to handle the munitions delivery because they were so good.”
The “Red Arrow” would send three more battalions to Iraq in 2005 — the 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry, the 1st Battalion, 120th Field Artillery, and the 2nd Battalion, 128th Infantry. The latter two battalions weathered Hurricane Katrina while at Camp Shelby, Mississippi preparing for their deployment.
Spc. Michael Wendling and Sgt. Andrew Wallace of Company C, 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry were killed Sept. 26, 2005 in Safwan, Iraq during a convoy escort mission. In response, the battalion would implement a successful route security element mission to patrol Safwan, just across the border from Camp Navistar, Kuwait, to deter future attacks on military convoys.
The 1158th Transportation Company logged more than 2 million miles performing convoys in Iraq and Kuwait from 2005-06. A 15-member Wisconsin Army National Guard task force deployed to Afghanistan in early 2006 to train and advise a segment of the Afghan National Army.
The 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery reported to Kuwait in July 2006 to assume the convoy escort mission from the 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry. Sgt. 1st Class John Lemke, the platoon sergeant for the 121st Field Artillery platoon to inherit the route security mission from the 127th Infantry, recalled the myriad dynamics involved.
“When we received the mission in Safwan, our predecessors actually had a price on their heads,” Lemke recalled. “My intent at the time was to rebuild relations with the local leadership — the police, highway patrol and the mayor of the city.”
Lemke spoke of mediating disputes between Safwan officials and private security organizations accused of smuggling chickens across the border, conducting joint roadside bomb searches with the highway patrol, and bringing school supplies to a school in Safwan.
On July 24, Spc. Stephen Castner was killed by an improvised explosive device near Tallil, Iraq on his first convoy mission. Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, National Guard Bureau chief, met with Mr. Stephen Castner, Spc. Castner’s father, Sept. 1 after reviewing the quality of training at Camp Shelby and military equipment in theater. In letters written during mobilization training, Spc. Castner had been critical of mobilization training at Camp Shelby, prompting calls for an investigation by Gov. Jim Doyle and U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner.
Sgt. Ryan Jopek, serving with Company A, 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry, was killed Aug. 2 by an improvised explosive device in Tikrit, Iraq on his final scheduled convoy mission before the battalion was to return to Wisconsin. Presidential candidate Barack Obama would wear a bracelet with Jopek’s name during the 2008 campaign. The convoy escort mission would claim the lives of four Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldiers, as well as Sgt. Richard Parker of the Maine Army National Guard — one of many Guard members from other states who augmented the 121st Field Artillery for its deployment. The 121st performed more than 4,000 individual missions and logged approximately 5 million miles.
Staff Sgt. Robert Basham, of the headquarters battery of 1st Battalion, 126th Field Artillery, was serving with a Kansas Army National Guard unit when he died from non-combat injuries at Camp As Sayliyah, Qatar on April 14, 2007.
The 128th Civil Engineer Squadron deployed to Joint Task Force Guantanamo in August 2007 and served as part of the 474th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron. They helped develop Camp Justice, a tent city near an abandoned airfield on the U.S. Naval Base’s windward side. They also helped construct the $10.2 million state-of-the-art expeditionary legal complex where terror suspects — including the 9/11 co-conspirators — would have their day in court. Groundbreaking would begin on Sept. 11, 2007.
A sign commemorating the Camp Justice dedication date was ordered changed in 2008 by Rear Adm. David Thomas, the joint task force commander at the time, citing concern that the sign might imply the legal complex was designed for revenge rather than justice.
The 112th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment deployed to Joint Task Force Guantanamo in April 2008 for a year. Part of their mission was coordinating, escorting and facilitating civilian media at Guantanamo Bay as the military tribunals began.
“Seeing the [Guantanamo] coverage on national news networks, and knowing we helped make it possible, is pretty cool,” said Staff Sgt. Mary Flynn, non-commissioned officer in charge of the detachment’s media relations team. “It’s rewarding on a local level, too — I get compliments on my Soldiers, their professionalism and hard work, a lot.”
The 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team deployed to Iraq in early 2009, the first time the entire brigade deployed overseas since the 1986 REFORGER (Return of Forces to Germany) exercise. The brigade dispersed all across Iraq, performing a variety of missions including detainee operations, base security and administrative functions in Baghdad’s International Zone. Sgt. 1st Class Brian Naseman, of the 108th Forward Support Company, died May 21, 2009 in Taji, Iraq from injuries sustained in a non-combat incident while deployed with the 32nd Brigade.
The 951st Engineer Company deployed to Afghanistan in November 2008 for a route clearance mission along some of the most dangerous roads in Afghanistan. Sgt. Ryan Adams was killed during an Oct. 2, 2009 firefight in Logar Province, Afghanistan. He would be the Wisconsin National Guard’s last fatality to date in the global war on terror.
After President Barack Obama declared an end to combat operations Aug. 30, 2010, Operation Iraqi Freedom became Operation New Dawn on Sept. 1, signifying a drawdown of U.S. forces there and a transition to advising, assisting and training Iraqi Security Forces. The 147th Aviation Battalion and the 724th Engineer Battalion were deployed to Iraq as Operation Iraqi Freedom came to an end and saw their mission load increase as Operation New Dawn began.
Wisconsin National Guard deployments to Afghanistan also began to support efforts to help local security forces operate on their own. A handful of embedded training teams had already deployed to Afghanistan between 2004 and 2009, working with Afghan National Army brigades and battalions. In 2011 four Wisconsin Army National Guard female Soldiers graduated from the first special training class that would place them with special operations teams in Afghanistan. They deployed to Afghanistan shortly after graduation — their role would be to interact with women and children in local Afghan villages. In 2012 the 82nd Agribusiness Development Team, comprised of Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers and Airmen, would deploy to Afghanistan to help revitalize the local agriculture industry. In 2013 the 97th Agribusiness Development Team would follow.
The Wisconsin National Guard deployed a 16-Soldier Security Force Advise and Assist Team, in February 2013 to mentor Afghan border police on how to sustain their own operations to control and secure the region.
The Plymouth-based Battery B, 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery, a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System unit, became the first National Guard artillery unit to provide a fire support mission in Afghanistan in early 2013, supporting a joint special operations task force. Battery A of the 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery would perform the same mission in 2014.
Between 2014 and 2020, Wisconsin National Guard engineer units deployed to Afghanistan to clear roadside bombs from military roads, deconstruct forward operating bases and recover military equipment, and improve facilities and complete essential construction projects.
The war in Afghanistan, officially, ended Dec. 28, 2014. Operation Freedom’s Sentinel began Jan. 1, 2015, replacing Operation Enduring Freedom. The name change reflected a shift to counterterrorism efforts, force protection and logistical support.
Sixty-five Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldiers deployed as a detachment to support the 101st Airborne Division headquarters in the first-ever Army initiative to integrate National Guard and Reserve troops with active-duty counterparts, known as the Division Multi-Component Unit. The DMCU deployed to Kuwait and Iraq to advise and assist Iraqi Security Forces in the fight against Islamic State.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the Soldiers of the detachment before you integrated into one of the finest combat forces in the world,” said Col. Leland Ward, who commanded the detachment during the deployment. “They were tested by a tough and resilient enemy, and found worthy.”
In 2018 the entire 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery would deploy to support three concurrent military operations — Inherent Resolve, Spartan Shield and Freedom’s Sentinel — across 15 locations in six countries. The battalion fired approximately 400 HIMARS precision munitions against the Taliban in Afghanistan as well as against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
In another first for the National Guard, in April 2019 the 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry became the first National Guard battalion to partner with an Army security force assistance brigade, serving as “Guardian Angels” — providing force protection for Army advisors and other coalition forces and contractors when interacting with Afghan troops. The mission aimed to reduce insider threats as Army advisors conducted training. They sent teams to 14 locations across eight provinces in Afghanistan. In November of that year their sister battalion — the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry — took over the Guardian Angel mission.
The 115th Fighter Wing’s 176th Fighter Squadron and the active-duty 378th Fighter Squadron deployed to Bagram Air Field in July 2019 to support Afghan National Army outposts in northern Afghanistan against the Taliban.
Many Wisconsin National Guard units gained additional missions and tasks upon arriving in Afghanistan, reflecting the ever-changing requirements there as troop levels were drawn down.
Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990-91 was the first integration of National Guard and Reserve units with active duty units for combat operations under the Total Force concept, and the reserve components proved their value to their active-duty counterparts. The global war on terror saw the National Guard playing a more active role in our nation’s defense since World War II, transforming from a strategic reserve to a primary combat reserve. Simultaneously the National Guard gained additional homeland defense missions such as civil support teams, disaster enhanced force packages and rapid reaction forces.
Over the past 20 years, every unit in the Wisconsin National Guard, in whole or in part, has supported the global war on terror. Not all of those units or individuals have been listed here, but all played an important role. Many Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers and Airmen have deployed multiple times since Sept. 11, 2001.
While the Wisconsin National Guard deployed units to Iraq and Afghanistan, it also deployed units to Kosovo and Ukraine in support of NATO missions there, continued regular training schedules, and supported domestic operations following damaging storms, civil unrest and a pandemic. Gen. David Allen, U.S. Air Force vice chief of staff, said the National Guard is an inextricable part of national security, beyond responding to emergencies at home.
“You’re also an integral part of our combat power,” Allen said Aug. 28 at the National Guard Association of the United States annual conference. “We don’t go to war at all anymore without fully integrating the Total Force. We do not have a force capable of doing what we need to do without the Total Force. We have to fight together — we’re better fighting together.”
Maj. Brian Faltinson, a public affairs officer with the Wisconsin National Guard who deployed to Iraq in 2004 and also served as the Wisconsin National Guard’s command historian, agreed.
“The Wisconsin National Guard fully transitioned from a strategic reserve, where we trained and prepared for a large-scale conflict, to an operational reserve where our units augment Army and Air Force missions on a relatively routine basis,” Faltinson said. “These deployments have added a great deal of experience and expertise to the organization that has resulted in a more mission-ready and capable National Guard that can better respond to emergencies here in Wisconsin, as well as for those missions required by the Army and Air Force.”