MADISON, Wis. - As the nation marked the 16th anniversary of the terror attacks in New York City, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, more than 2,500 Wisconsin National Guard troops began loading up into military trucks or aircraft — en route to Florida to assist the ongoing Hurricane Irma relief efforts.
Wisconsin National Guard troops will continue leaving for Florida through Thursday. They will remain in the region as long as they are needed.
Across the National Guard, more than 15,500 Citizen-Soldiers from at least seven states are in place supporting relief efforts of Hurricane Irma throughout Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina along with the territories of Puerto Rico and the U.S Virgin Islands. Another 4,500 Guard members are in transit.
The National Guard has been credited with evacuating more than 1,000 U.S. citizens from the Dutch Caribbean islands of St. Maarten Sept. 9-10, by the Kentucky Air National Guard's 123rd Airlift Wing, New York Air Guard's 106th Rescue Wing and the Puerto Rico Air Guard's 156th Airlift Wing.
"Among the first of those who responded to the attacks in New York City were members of the National Guard," said Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, Wisconsin's adjutant general. "Since that day, the National Guard has shown day after day that it is ready and capable of meeting our nation's needs at home and abroad. Today, as we help our fellow citizens in Florida recover from a natural disaster, is no different."
The Wisconsin National Guard's 32nd "Red Arrow" Infantry Brigade Combat Team had been identified as one of the units nationwide available to assist in the Hurricane Harvey recovery effort in Texas. The Red Arrow brigade was redirected as Hurricane Irma approached Florida.
Joining the 32nd Brigade on state active duty in helping Florida are the 157th Manoeuver Enhancement Brigade's 1157th Transportation Company, and the 64th Troop Command's 112th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, along with other Wisconsin Army and Air National Guard elements.
The Wisconsin National Guard is traveling approximately 1,400 miles to render assistance thanks to the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), the nation's state-to-state mutual aid system. Florida Gov. Rick Scott used EMAC to ask Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for Wisconsin National Guard assistance. Walker, in turn, issued Executive Order 254 last Friday, which authorized Dunbar to call Wisconsin National Guard troops to state active duty to assist Florida.
"Assisting civil authorities and first responders is one of the National Guard's core missions," Dunbar continued. "This is what we train for, and regular domestic operations exercises help prepare our troops to respond when needed."
Sgt. 1st Class William Kocken, a readiness noncommissioned officer and platoon sergeant from Company A, 1st Battalion, 127th Infantry, agreed.
"We're excited about it," he said. "It's what many of us sign up to do — help others. It's what we like doing, it's part of serving the country — being able to step up and help those in need. Morale is remarkably high."
Command Sgt. Maj. Rafael Conde, the Wisconsin Army National Guard's senior enlisted advisor, said the troops he spoke with are ready to go.
"They want to do this mission," Conde said. "Very few times do they actually get to do this kind of mission at this kind of scale."
"We have a lot of skilled people here who have a lot of knowledge — we're doing our best to maximize that," said Master Sgt. Kitrina Vargas, an air cargo specialist with the 128th Air Refueling Wing in Milwaukee. Vargas was at Volk Field Monday helping approximately 600 Soldiers load gear onto aircraft bound for Florida. "We're going to make this mission happen."
"We are ready to roll down to Irma," said Staff Sgt. Justin Sonnentag of Evansville, Wisconsin, a member of Company D, 132nd Brigade Support Battalion, located in Madison, Wisconsin, as his unit prepared to convoy to Florida Monday morning.
Spc. Andurina Sickinger, of Battery C, 1st Battalion, 120th Field Artillery, in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, said she was excited to help.
"This is what I signed up for," she said. "I really want to help people there. I feel for everyone, that they've lost a lot of things. I want to do what I can to help."
Conde noted that many administrative members put in many hours over the weekend to coordinate everything required to send Wisconsin National Guard troops to Florida on short notice.
"It's a massive, massive move," Conde said. "I couldn't be prouder of the Soldiers and the Airmen that are accomplishing their mission right now."
Amid Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma and multiple firefighting missions nearly 31,000 Guard members are deployed across the United States and its territories.
(Sgt. 1st Class Jessica Barnett of the 105th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, Kansas Army National Guard contributed to this article.)