MADISON, Wis. – This was the "Year of the Guard" across the nation, as Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen answered the call in an unprecedented way – from traditional overseas deployments to civil disturbances, pandemic response, and election support.
Nowhere in America was the "Year of the Guard" more prevalent than in the Badger State, where the state called on the Wisconsin National Guard more than in any other time in the organization's proud history.
The first year of the new decade began with overseas deployments for two Wisconsin Army National Guard units - the 1967th Contracting Team and the 924th Engineer Facilities Detachment. The 1967th deployed to the Horn of Africa, where it handled major contracts and acquisitions for U.S. forces operating in the region. The unit returned to Wisconsin just before Christmas. The 924th deployed to Kuwait, where its engineers essentially functioned as the public works department for the sprawling Camp Arifjan when COVID-19 caused serious complications in supporting the base.
Hundreds of other troops, including the 829th Engineer Company, 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, the 32nd "Red Arrow" Infantry Brigade Combat Team Headquarters and dozens of Airmen from the Wisconsin Air National Guard, also began the year deployed after mobilizing in fall 2019.
In February, Gov. Tony Evers appointed Maj. Gen. Paul Knapp as Wisconsin's new adjutant general. Knapp assumed his duties the first week of March.
Just days later, the world changed forever.
On March 12, Evers declared a public health emergency in Wisconsin as the COVID-19 pandemic made its way toward the state. That same day, approximately 30 Soldiers mobilized to help transport a group of cruise ship passengers back to their Wisconsin homes after they were exposed to COVID-19.
In the ensuing days and weeks, hundreds of additional Guard members mobilized to state active duty as the state braced for the first wave of the coronavirus. Those troops began establishing procedures for mobile drive-thru COVID-19 testing sites and trained on the proper use of personal protective equipment. As March continued, they helped the state manage a warehouse handling critical PPE supplies, and a team of medics and medical professionals deployed to a senior living facility in Grafton to assist after a COVID outbreak created a critical staffing shortage.
As the state endured the initial shock of the pandemic, state officials and the Wisconsin National Guard were developing a plan for the April 7 election, knowing it would be difficult to find enough volunteer poll workers to run a statewide election.
More than 2,400 troops mobilized in 71 of Wisconsin's 72 counties to serve as poll workers. The Wisconsin Guard fulfilled the same role during elections in May, August and November. More than 3,700 Wisconsin Guard members mobilized as poll workers throughout the year.
As COVID-19 continued to spread across the state, the Wisconsin Guard assumed more missions. In a preview of what was to come, a COVID-19 testing team deployed to a senior living facility in Sheboygan in early April and tested all the staff and residents after an outbreak. By month's end, Guard specimen collection teams were deployed to correctional facilities and other senior living facilities to do the same. They simultaneously deployed teams of medics and administrative personnel to staff voluntary self-isolation facilities in Milwaukee and Madison and sent troops to help with the setup of an alternate care facility at Wisconsin State Fair Park in West Allis.
By May, the need for widespread community-based COVID-19 testing was apparent, and Wisconsin once again called on its Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen to meet the need. Hundreds of additional troops mobilized to federal duty to run COVID-19 testing sites in communities around the state, run a state call center to inform people of their test results and handle other COVID-related missions. The Guard's mobilization peaked at 1,400 troops, representing the largest sustained domestic mobilization in Wisconsin National Guard history.
The Guard worked with public health officials in Milwaukee, Madison, and Green Bay to establish long-term testing sites in those communities and other sites statewide. By year's end, approximately 1 million tests had been administered at Guard testing sites in virtually every county.
Even as the pandemic raged, the Guard's other operations continued. In late April, the first wave - approximately 200 Soldiers - from the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry, began returning home from Afghanistan. The remaining 200 would return in waves over the rest of the spring and summer after serving as "guardian angels" for an Army security force assistance brigade.
The Wisconsin Guard also received welcome news in April that the U.S. Air Force had selected Truax Field Air National Guard Base and the 115th Fighter Wing to receive the F-35 joint strike fighter. The decision secured the future of the 115th Fighter Wing and the base for decades to come.
Weeks later, the 115th paid tribute to Wisconsin's frontline health care workers with a stunning statewide F-16 flyover.
As spring turned to summer, a new challenge emerged to test the Wisconsin Guard. The death of George Floyd in an officer-involved shooting in Minneapolis led to nationwide protests, some violent. Communities turned to the National Guard to help preserve public safety and set the conditions for people to exercise their First Amendment rights to demonstrate peacefully. In late May and early June, more than 1,200 Wisconsin Guard members mobilized in response to requests for assistance from Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Racine and Kenosha.
In late June, more civil disturbances broke out around the state capitol in Madison. Some 150 Soldiers assisted.
Then in August, an officer-involved shooting occurred in Kenosha. The ensuing civil unrest prompted the mobilization of more than 2,000 Guard members, including more than 700 troops from Michigan, Alabama, and Arizona.
In October, officials in Wauwatosa requested the assistance of 500 Citizen-Soldiers in anticipation of a charging decision for a Wauwatosa police officer in an incident that occurred in February.
By year's end, nearly 3,800 Wisconsin Guard members had mobilized for civil disturbance responses.
Throughout that period, the Soldiers and Airmen continued their annual training, deployed and returned from overseas, and continued the COVID response in addition to other missions.
In June, the West Bend-based Detachment 1, G Company, 2nd Battalion, 104th Aviation, mobilized for deployment to the Middle East, where the unit continues to perform an aerial medevac mission across the theater. In October, the newly formed 176th Cyber Protection Team mobilized to Maryland.
Meanwhile, the 829th Engineer Company completed its mobilization to Afghanistan and the Middle East, and the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team Headquarters completed its mobilization to Ukraine and returned safely to Wisconsin in late summer and early fall. Since December 2019, more than 1,200 Wisconsin National Guard troops either deployed or returned from overseas deployments.
Even amid the pandemic, a major annual exercise went on at Volk Field Combat Readiness Training Center, as nearly 25 units from across the armed forces converged on central Wisconsin's airspace for one of the nation's premier air exercises.
In September, crews and two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters deployed to California to help the California National Guard battle wildfires raging across the state. The troops spent more than a month dropping water on remote areas.
The Wisconsin National Guard also received word in 2020 that it had been selected as the new partner for Papua New Guinea as part of the National Guard's State Partnership Program.
The year ended tragically as Capt. Durwood "Hawk" Jones, a 37-year-old father and husband assigned to the 115th Fighter Wing, died when his F-16 crashed in Michigan's Upper Peninsula during a training mission on Dec. 8. The crash remains under investigation.
A glimmer of hope emerged at the end of the year, as the state and nation began administering the first COVID-19 vaccines to frontline health care workers. The Wisconsin Guard was once again there, assisting with vaccine inventory management.
The year was a momentous one - unlike any other in Wisconsin Guard history, which dates back to 1837. But the Wisconsin National Guard looks forward to a brighter 2021 and continued service to Wisconsin and the nation.