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Three Wisconsin employers have received the nation’s top award for supporting National Guard and Reserve employees, the Freedom Award. This is the first time a single state has claimed three Freedom Award winners in the 25-year history of the award.
Three Wisconsin employers have received the nation’s top award for supporting National Guard and Reserve employees, the Freedom Award. This is the first time a single state has claimed three Freedom Award winners in the 25-year history of the award.

Three Wisconsin employers — the Village of Pewaukee Police Department, Associated Bank and INNIO Waukesha Gas Engine — have received the 2021 Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award, the nation’s top honor for employers that support National Guard and reserve component employees.

“It is always great to have a Freedom Award winner, but to have three come back is a shocker,” said Jeff Unger, transition assistance advisor with the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs. “No state has ever accomplished this in the 25-year history of the Freedom Award.

“I call this supreme accomplishment the triple crown,” he added.

Unger, who also serves as the Wisconsin Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) state awards director, noted that there were 94 Freedom Award nominations for state employers this year, representing small and large private sector firms as well as public sector employers. After a detailed review of the nominations, the Wisconsin ESGR forwarded three for national consideration.

Nationwide, ESGR received 3,382 nominations from all 50 states as well as three territories and the District of Columbia for this year’s Freedom Awards.

“That represents more than 1 million drilling Guard members and reservists,” Unger said.

From these nominees, the Wisconsin employers were among 140 selected to advance to the semifinalist judging, and then were among the 30 finalists. Fifteen employers, including the three from Wisconsin, were named Freedom Award recipients July 21.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III lauded the Freedom Award recipients.

“I am proud to salute the outstanding employers who have earned the distinction of being named Freedom Award recipients as we mark the 25th year of this highly coveted recognition,” Austin said. “The men and women of the National Guard and Reserve make significant contributions to our communities and our national security through their civilian and military careers. We owe a debt of gratitude to these exemplary employers, who by valuing and supporting their employees’ military service, enhance the strength, readiness and diversity of our National Guard and Reserve forces.”

The past year underscores why employer support of the National Guard and reserve components is so highly valued. In addition to federal overseas deployments and state COVID response missions such as specimen collection and vaccination sites, Wisconsin National Guard members supported wildfire response in California, provided poll workers for primary and general elections, and supported local officials during protests in 2020 as well as the nation’s capitol after the Jan. 6 riot. Some of these activations were for short periods of time, while others required more time away from civilian jobs and family. Job security is crucial for National Guard and reserve members to be able to serve their state and nation when needed.

“We in Wisconsin are greatly honored and blessed to have three recipients for the [Secretary of Defense] Freedom Award,” said Scott Legwold, a retired brigadier general and chairman of the Wisconsin ESGR. “We truly appreciate the support of all Wisconsin Employers for their tremendous support of all military reserve component members. We sincerely look forward to working with employers, service members and their families to ensure we have the strongest relationships possible to support reserve component military service moving forward.”

Examples of how 2021 Freedom Award recipients went beyond the requirements of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) to support their military reservist employees include flexible scheduling and generous leave policies, pre-deployment and post-deployment support, staying connected to deployed employees, assisting families of deployed employees, including deployed employees in company functions, and providing financial assistance.

The Pewaukee Police Department, nominated by Capt. Brett Markut of the Wisconsin Army National Guard, kept one deployed patrol officer updated on department news and sent care packages, and supported the wife of a deployed patrol officer by booking appointments at her hairdressing business.

Associated Bank, nominated by Staff Sgt. Keith Kunze and Sgt. Angela Peterson of the Wisconsin Army National Guard as well as Sgt. 1st Class Tom Irizarry of the U.S. Army Reserve, was described in its nomination packet as viewing the military obligations of its employees as adding value to their experience and skillset. INNIO Waukesha, nominated by Lt. Cmdr. Nicholas Porta of the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, supported an employee’s short-notice activation for Hurricane Dorian response by attending to the deployed employee’s customers, as well as taking care of his family in his absence by paying the difference in salary.