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2021 will go down as one of the most historic years in Wisconsin National Guard history.

After a 2020 dubbed the “Year of the Guard” both in Wisconsin and nationally due to the Guard’s unprecedented COVID-19 response, support to state elections, and repeated mobilizations for civil unrest, 2021 represented an encore performance that will go down as one of the most momentous in the long and storied 184-year history of the Wisconsin National Guard.

The Wisconsin National Guard’s COVID-19 response continued in a sustained fashion. Mobilized since March 12, 2020, hundreds of troops remained mobilized throughout 2021 to support the state’s response to the ongoing pandemic. And while 2020 saw the Guard take on a variety of pandemic-related missions ranging from testing, staffing isolation facilities, handling personal protective equipment warehousing operations, and helping to setup an alternate care facility to assisting medical examiners, staffing a state call center, and even bringing a group of cruise ship passengers home after exposure to COVID-19.

Citizen Soldiers from the Wisconsin National Guard prepare for the first day of mobile vaccination team operations Jan. 19 in Greendale, Wis. Mobile vaccination teams made up of four Wisconsin National Guard members and students from the University of Wisconsin system comprise nine teams that are now available to assist local health departments statewide with efforts to increase COVID-19 vaccine access. Wisconsin National Guard photo by Maj. Joe Trovato

In 2021 – the Guard’s COVID response focused almost exclusively on COVID-19 testing and distributing newly released vaccines. By the end of year, the Guard had administered 1.2 million COVID tests to state residents since the beginning of the pandemic. In January 2021, the Guard began establishing mobile vaccination teams to assist communities in running public vaccination clinics. It also dispatched teams to assist the state in managing and distributing the stockpile of vaccines coming into the state. Those teams helped distribute more than 1.2 million vaccines across Wisconsin and helped directly administer more than 230,000 vaccines to state residents at clinics.

By fall 2021, staffing shortages in state healthcare facilities continued to grow, and Wisconsin National Guard troops began training as temporary nursing assistants to help perform basic functions at four state mental health facilities. Those troops also began training as certified nursing assistants to offer higher levels of care moving forward.

Citizen Soldiers and Citizen Airmen from the Wisconsin National Guard collect specimens for COVID-19 testing Jan. 20 at a community-based testing site at the Waukesha County Expo Center in Waukesha, Wis. The Wisconsin National Guard has multiple COVID-19 specimen collection teams operating throughout the state. Wisconsin National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Katie Theusch

The Wisconsin National Guard’s mobilization for the pandemic represents the longest and largest sustained domestic mobilization in Wisconsin National Guard history. Wisconsin troops have mobilized for longer periods during both world wars, the Civil War, Spanish American War and the Global War on Terror, but never have so many troops been mobilized for so long here in Wisconsin.

As the COVID mission continued, other requirements kept up an unprecedented operations tempo. As the year began, approximately 500 troops were on duty in Kenosha to help preserve public safety as the community awaited a charging decision in the officer-involved shooting of Jacob Blake that occurred in August 2020.

Days later on Jan. 6, violence erupted at the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., and a nationwide task force of National Guard troops from all 54 states and territories assembled in the National Capital Region to secure the presidential inauguration. More than 500 Wisconsin National Guard troops – mostly from the 32nd “Red Arrow” Infantry Brigade Combat Team, the 115th Fighter Wing, and the 128th Air Refueling Wing had a front row seat for the inauguration and helped ensure a safe and peaceful transfer of power.

Lt. Col. Matt McDonald and Command Sgt. Maj. Joel Rothbauer (right) speak with Wisconsin National Guard Citizen Soldiers and Airmen from Joint Task Force Wisconsin Jan. 21 on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. More than 550 Wisconsin National Guard members mobilized to support security efforts during the 59th presidential inauguration in Washington D.C. Submitted photo

Simultaneously, threats to state capitol buildings nationwide emerged as well, and hundreds of troops from the Wisconsin National Guard Reaction Force deployed to Madison to assist Capitol Police in securing the statehouse.

In the months that followed the inauguration in Washington D.C., tensions remained high and the National Guard provided an enduring security presence around the capitol building. The Wisconsin National Guard’s 32nd “Red Arrow” Infantry Brigade Combat Team once again sent a task force of approximately 130 troops to Washington to augment security efforts there from March to May.

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Members of the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 135th Medical Company rehearse moving a casualty by litter Aug. 8. The 135th is serving at Al Asad Air Base in western Iraq as well as multiple locations in the Middle East in support of Operation Spartan Shield. Their role is to provide basic secondary health care and stabilize post-surgical cases for medical evacuation. Submitted photo

Meanwhile, overseas deployments in support of the Wisconsin National Guard’s federal mission continued. The Waukesha, Wisconsin-based 135th Medical Company and approximately 60 Soldiers received mobilization orders and deployed to Kuwait and Iraq at the end of March, where the troops continue to provide medical care to U.S. and coalition troops operating in the region. Approximately 35 troops from the West Bend, Wisconsin-based Detachment 1, Company G, 2nd Battalion, 104th Aviation returned in the spring from a Middle East deployment in support of Operations Inherent Resolve and Spartan Shield.

In May, the 107th Maintenance Company, based in Sparta and Viroqua, Wisconsin, mobilized for deployment to Eastern Europe. The unit’s 150 Soldiers remain split between Romania and Poland, where they provided maintenance support for the Defender Europe 2021 exercise and U.S. troops supporting Operation Atlantic Resolve.

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Sgt. Ryan Swanton, of the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 107th Maintenance Company, conducts maintenance on a vehicle during the unit’s mobilization to Eastern Europe as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve. The 107th mobilized in May to provide area maintenance support at locations across Poland, Romania, and Lithuania. Submitted photo

The Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 176th Cyber Protection Team also completed its first federal mission after a nearly 14-month mobilization to Fort Meade, Maryland in support of U.S. Cyber Command. The unit’s personnel returned to Wisconsin in December.

Meanwhile, the 229th Engineer Company, based in Platteville and Richland Center, Wisconsin, got orders to deploy to the Southwest Border in the fall.

Dozens of Airmen from Milwaukee’s 128th Air Refueling Wing continued worldwide deployments throughout the year. In October, hundreds of Airmen from the Madison, Wisconsin-based 115th Fighter Wing deployed to Saudi Arabia where it joined the 378th Air Expeditionary Wing to provide agile combat air support for the U.S. Central Command area of operations throughout the Middle East. The unit’s overseas deployment represents its last as an F-16 unit, as the unit prepares to convert to the F-35 in the next year.

Back in Madison, preparations to receive the F-35 continued, as the base broke ground on a new $9 million F-35 simulator over the summer. The unit expects to award nearly $100 million worth of construction projects at the base as part of the conversion to the new airframe.

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Leadership from the Wisconsin Air National Guard and local organizations break ground Aug. 11, 2021 at the 115th Fighter Wing’s first major project leading up to the beddown of the F-35 Lightning II at Truax Field. The ceremony brought together military and civilian leadership to commemorate the future of the Madison unit as the selected beddown site of the F-35 Lightning II aircraft. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Cameron Lewis)

Other mission highlights from 2021 included when nearly 200 Guard members mobilized during the Milwaukee Bucks NBA Finals run in July. Those troops helped provide COVID-testing, vaccines, security, and traffic control during the celebration of the Bucks NBA Finals victory. The Wisconsin Air National Guard also provided an F-16 flyover of the “Deer District” in Milwaukee before the championship-sealing victory.

Wisconsin Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk crews from the Madison, Wis.-based 1st Battalion, 147th Aviation provide assistance in wildfire fighting operations in California.

In September and October, nearly 25 Soldiers deployed to California and Washington to battle wildfires and provide search and rescue support. The troops accumulated approximately 100 flight hours and dropped more than 130,000 gallons of water on fires.

Events on the other side of the world also had major implications in Wisconsin as summer turned to fall. As the war in Afghanistan came to an end and the last American troops departed the nation after 20 years of war, thousands of Afghan evacuees also began arriving in the United States. Thousands arrived in Wisconsin by way of Volk Field Combat Readiness Training Center in Camp Douglas, Wisconsin, en route to nearby Fort McCoy. Airfield managers, refuelers, and security forces personnel worked around the clock at Volk Field to keep the airfield running as more than 100 flights arrived at Volk Field. All told, military personnel from 28 different states led by a dual-status commander – the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s Brig. Gen. Joane Mathews – helped receive thousands of arriving evacuees.

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A U.S. Air Force Airman assigned to the 123rd Contingency Response refuels a plane after it brought Afghan personnel to Volk Air Field, Wisconsin, Aug. 29, 2021. The Department of Defense, in support of the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State, is providing transportation and temporary housing for Operation Allies Refuge. This initiative follows through on America’s commitment to Afghan personnel who have helped the United States, and provides them essential support at secure locations outside Afghanistan. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Rhianna Ballenger, 55th Signal Company)

In November, more than 500 Red Arrow troops comprising the National Guard Reaction Force mobilized again to support Kenosha, if needed, during the Kyle Rittenhouse trial. The troops staged in the region ready to respond to Kenosha, if needed as the trial’s conclusion loomed.

Even with so many domestic and overseas missions in 2021, regular Wisconsin National Guard training continued in earnest. Units in both the Army and Air National Guard engaged in demanding exercises and training events.

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Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers with the 229th Engineer Company help construct Camp Kamassa, a strategically designed 326-acre camp for children and adults with special needs in Crystal Springs, Miss., in June 2021. Military involvement in construction projects like Camp Kamassa are possible through the Department of Defense’s Innovative Readiness Training (IRT) program which supports communities in the United States and its territories while simultaneously offering joint training. Wisconsin National Guard photo

Among the highlights were the 157th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade and the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team participating in a Warfighter Exercise at Fort Riley, Kansas. The multi-component exercise involving active duty and reserve component units from both the U.S. and Europe involved a high-intensity computer simulation, and tested the ability of the headquarters at each echelon to produce actionable orders, monitor execution, and react based on enemy locations. The Red Arrow’s 1st Squadron, 105th Cavalry, which celebrated its centennial in 2021, also conducted a Spur Ride during its annual training where it’s troopers had the opportunity to earn their coveted spurs after passing a series of rigorous tests and physical requirements.

Engineer units from the 157th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade like the 229th Engineer Company completed a variety of innovative training such as helping to build Camp Kamassa – a 362-acre camp for children and adults with special needs in Mississippi. Meanwhile, the 950th Engineer Company, based in Superior and Spooner, helped make improvements at a tactical training base at Fort McCoy.

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A U.S. Air Force loadmaster with the 352d Special Operations Wing guides a U.S. Army Soldier with 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery Regiment, while off-loading an M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System during a bilateral exercise at a highway landing zone in Gotland, Sweden, Oct. 23. This bilateral demonstration underscores, for the first time, the ability of Swedish and U.S. Forces’ ability to quickly employ long-range precision fires across the theater in a time and place of our choosing, while developing the ability to employ flexible capabilities with our partners and allies in the Baltic Sea region. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Westin Warburton

The 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery unit became the first American high-mobility rocket artillery system (HIMARS) to launch rockets in Sweden, as part of a special operations training event to demonstrate the U.S.’s ability to rapidly deploy HIMARS in the Baltic Sea area. Fourteen Soldiers from the unit participated alongside Special Operations Command Europe and the Swedish Air Force in exercises Voldemort 22 and Adamant Serpent 22. A Swedish C-130 Hercules and a U.S. Air Force MC-130J Commando II flew out to Gotland, a remote Swedish island in the Baltic Sea and landed on a paved highway. The HIMARS launcher disembarked from the MC-130J for a few minutes, then was loaded on the aircraft again and flown to northern Sweden for a live-fire exercise.

Units in the 64th Troop Command also had a variety of unique training opportunities. The 1157th Transportation Company, based in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, also conducted a demanding and rigorous training rotation to the Joint Regional Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana during its annual training period over the summer. The 457th Chemical Company, a key unit in the early days of the state’s COVID-19 pandemic response, traveled to Camp Roberts, California, to train on its core mission of supporting Army operations in contaminated environments. The 1st Battalion, 147th Aviation traveled to Canada to participate in the annual Maple Resolve exercise.

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A variety of the world’s most advanced aircraft assembled at Volk Field Combat Readiness Training Center for the joint-accredited exercise Northern Lightning in August. Wisconsin National Guard photo

Air Guard units likewise had busy training rotations throughout the year, including the Northern Thaw exercise held at Volk Field in the spring. None were bigger than the annual Northern Lightning Exercise at Volk Field, which brought nearly 1,000 personnel and 60 aircraft from the National Guard, Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, and Navy to Volk Field for one of the premier exercises in the nation.

With so many major missions, exercises, and events in 2021, it’s no wonder units and troops in the organization continued to bring home the hardware in terms of awards and recognitions. The 115th Fighter Wing received its 11th Air Force Outstanding Unit Award this year, and the Army National Guard’s 426th Regional Training Institute at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin received the Superior Unit Award in February.

Other honors included 1st Lt. Nathaniel Hitchcock and Sgt. Levi Parker competing in the annual Best Sapper Competition in Missouri – a 50-hour gauntlet for combat engineers. Parker also received the prestigious Maj. Richard I. Bong Award from the Milwaukee Armed Services Committee for displaying outstanding traits of leadership and professionalism through his service to the military and community. Spc. Timothy Hicks from the 173rd Brigade Engineer Battalion emerged from the annual Wisconsin Best Warrior Competition as the Soldier of the Year, while Sgt. Savannah Lipinski from the Recruiting and Retention Battalion became the Noncommissioned Officer of the Year.

Capt. Alicia Dorsett renders a salute during a change of command ceremony August 15 in Hartford, Wis. Dorsett became the first female officer to command a field artillery battery in Wisconsin National Guard history. Wisconsin National Guard photo by Sgt. Amber Peck

Sgt. 1st Class John Battista, also a member of the Recruiting and Retention Battalion received the Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal for his service to his church, community, and the military, while Capt. Alicia Dorsett, of the 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery received the 1st Lt. Thomas E. Wortham IV Award, given annually to a Wisconsin National Guard member who displays exceptional service to the military and their community. In August, Dorsett became the first female field artillery commander in Wisconsin National Guard history.

Other leaders also moved on to new commands in 2021. Col. Eric Leckel took command of the 157th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade from Col. Matthew Beilfuss, who led the brigade for the last two-plus years. Two other senior Wisconsin Army National Guard leaders earned promotions to the rank of brigadier general – Brig. Gen. Timothy Covington, who took over as the deputy adjutant general for civil support, and Brig. Gen. Daniel Pulvermacher, who took a new position at National Guard Bureau.

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A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot assigned to the 115th Fighter Wing, Truax Field, Madison, Wis., prepares for takeoff in an F-16 Oct. 11, 2021. The 115th FW and its active associate, the 378th Fighter Squadron, deployed approximately 300 Airmen and a handful of F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft to Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia to provide agile combat air support for U.S. Central Command operations. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Cameron Lewis)

With such a high operations tempo and busy training regimen, support from families and employers is of paramount importance. Thankfully, the Wisconsin National Guard continued to enjoy both in 2021. In fact, Wisconsin became the first state to sweep the major awards for the annual Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve’s (ESGR) Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Awards. For the first time in its 25-year history, one state won the awards for large and small private companies and a public agency for supporting the Guard and Reserve employees.

The year also brought a renewed focus on service member wellness. The innovative Wisconsin National Guard Comprehensive Health and Wellness Course – which focuses on teaching service members five pillars of wellness including physical, mental, spiritual, social, and financial – began gaining national attention in 2021, and the course continues to grow in Wisconsin. In July, the Comprehensive Health and Wellness Leaders Course took their show on the road out-of-state for the first time. The program brought its course to National Guard Bureau as a demonstration of how effective it can be in helping leaders relate better to their troops and how to establish meaningful and sustainable wellness for troops.

The year proved to be one of the most historic in the long lineage of the Wisconsin National Guard, but the Guard looks forward to an even brighter year in 2022.