ARLINGTON, Va. – Hurricanes and wildfires, along with large-scale, multi-national training exercises and overseas deployments made 2017 a busy year for the National Guard.
The year saw an active hurricane season, which included three back-to-back storms starting with Hurricane Harvey in late August. After the storm made landfall in Texas it stalled over the Houston area dumping torrential rains and causing "catastrophic flooding" throughout the region.
"Our response to this hurricane has been different [than] anything we've experienced before, and we expect it to be much longer in the response phase in terms of what we would normally see with a hurricane," said Air Force Maj. Gen. James C. Witham, the director of domestic operations at the National Guard Bureau, as Guard members began responding to the storm.
Guard members supported local and state authorities with search and rescue operations, transportation and evacuation assistance in Texas and western Louisiana.
While Guard members kept busy with the aftermath of Harvey, Hurricane Irma slammed through the Caribbean before making landfall in Florida in early September. Soldiers with the Florida Army National Guard's 753rd Brigade Engineer Battalion used heavy equipment to clear major roadways within 24 hours of the storm passing.
"We now have the unique opportunity to help these fellow Floridians take their first steps toward rebuilding and recovery," said Army Lt. Col. Betsy Evans, commander of the battalion.
Guard members in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico were still providing assistance in response to Irma when Hurricane Maria hit the islands in mid-September.
"Our mission right now is putting the people first and that's what we're trying to do," said Tech. Sgt. Jose Otero, a safety specialist with the Puerto Rico Air National Guard's 156th Airlift Wing, which established centralized distribution points for food, water and supplies in addition to conducting door-to-door checks. "Going forward, we'll do what we've trained for…supporting the community."
In January that trio of hurricanes was yet to come when more than 7,500 Guard members from 44 states, territories and the District of Columbia supported the 58th Presidential Inauguration. Guard members provided security, crowd control, traffic management, communications support and other capabilities.
"This is the Super Bowl event for the District of Columbia National Guard," said Army Lt. Col. Nicole L. Brugato, a personnel officer at the National Guard Bureau who was part of the joint task force supporting the event. "Everybody from a private first class to [our] chief of staff is energized and this is our opportunity to truly be the president's Guard."
Weeks after the inauguration, Guard units were busy responding to tornadoes in Louisiana and Mississippi where they provided traffic control points and security. Later, in March, more than 2,450 Guard members responded to Winter Storm Stella, coming to the aid of residents throughout the Mid-Atlantic region affected by the storm.
"This response illustrates the dynamic dual-status role of the Guard," said Air Force Brig. Gen. Tony Carrelli, the adjutant general of the Pennsylvania National Guard. "At the direction of the governor, we are able to provide assistance to our communities during critical weather incidents like this one."
But hurricanes, tornadoes and snowstorms weren't the only natural disasters that kept the Guard busy. Wildfire activity engulfed many areas in the West.
In July the Nevada Air National Guard's 152nd Airlift Wing used the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System to combat wildfires in California. Owned by the U.S. Forest Service, the MAFFS is a self-contained, aerial firefighting system loaded into the back of a C-130 Hercules aircraft.
The response effort marked the unit's first time flying the MAFFS mission.
"It's great to have our tail out there," said Air Force Lt. Col. Anthony Machabee, commander of the wing's operations group. "Our crews, maintenance, the pilots, loadmasters, engineers – it's kind of surreal. The 152nd is in the business of fighting fires."
Wildfires in California would continue to keep Guard units busy throughout much of the year. Airmen with the California Air National Guard's 163rd Attack Wing used remotely piloted aircraft to provide thermal imagery of affected areas to civilian responders.
"This is a very capable asset that really can help, whether it's disaster or search and rescue," said Air Force Lt. Col. Micaela Brancato, the deputy commander of the wing's mission support group.
Units from both the Air and Army Guard responded to the wildfires, providing both aerial and ground support.
"This is a great opportunity for green [Army] and blue [Air Force] to work together," said Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Johnny Gatlin, an operations superintendent with the California Air Guard's 146th Airlift Wing. "Our mission is to perform traffic control points, to direct civilian population and contractors. We're also providing security at shelters where the Red Cross is operating to ensure that aid for personnel who are evacuated [from affected areas] get the resources they need so they can get back on their feet."
In July and August Guard units also responded to wildfires that burned through parts of Arizona, Oregon, Wyoming and Montana. Wildfires in California would continue through December near the Los Angeles area.
While natural disasters kept Guard members busy on the domestic front, many other Guard units traveled to Europe, to participate in large-scale, NATO training exercises. For many Guard members, it provided the opportunity to work with soldiers from a variety of nations.
"We are learning to collaborate with each other," said Spc. Gizela Lupescu, a combat medic with the North Carolina Army National Guard's 230th Brigade Support Battalion, who worked with Romanian soldiers during Exercise Saber Guardian 17. "When we finally get to be in the battle zone [area of the exercise] we will at that point understand each other, what the other one does and how they do it."
As Army Guard members continued training on the physical battlefield, two milestones reflected its foray into the cyber realm. In August, the Army Guard stood up Task Force Echo in support of U.S. Cyber Command and the following month activated the Virginia Army National Guard's 91st Cyber Brigade. Nicknamed the "Shadow Brigade," the 91st Cyber Brigade. is the Army Guard's first brigade-sized cyber unit.
"The 91st Cyber Brigade will play a crucial role in our national defense," said Army Lt. Gen. Timothy Kadavy, director of the Army National Guard. "The Citizen-Soldiers of the Shadow Brigade represent a prime example of how highly skilled Army National Guard personnel bring state-of-the-art skills to their part-time service to carry out the Total Army effort."
Throughout the year Army Guard members made strong showings in a number of Army-wide competitions, testing their skill sets and overall readiness and fitness.
In April, Army Staff Sgt. Erich Friedlein, with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, and Army Capt. Robert Killian, with the Colorado Army National Guard, finished third in the Lt. Gen. David E. Grange Jr. Best Ranger Competition, after taking first place in the 2016 competition.
"Even though we won last year, I came into [it with] the mindset that I didn't, because I don't want to be complacent," said Friedlein.
Killian echoed that sentiment.
"We're out here for the competitive aspect," he said. "We are all pushing each other that much harder every year," he said.
The Army Guard fielded four teams in the competition, with three finishing among the top 20.
At the U.S. Army Small Arms Championship, Army Sgt. Max Nickerson, an avionics mechanic with the Maine Army National Guard's Company D, 3rd Battalion, 142nd Aviation Regiment, bested 198 competitors in pistol, rifle and multi-weapon matches to become the overall individual champion at the event.
"I was very happy to bring home the award," he said, chalking up his victory to a "train-as-you-fight" mentality.
In May a scout team with the Illinois Army National Guard's 2nd Squadron, 106th Cavalry Regiment took third place in the Gainey Cup Best Scout Competition. The competition tested each team's knowledge and proficiency in fundamental cavalry scout tasks to determine the Army's best scout team.
"We knew it was going to be a tough few days and [our mentors] told us, 'just get through it, don't be babies about it,'" said Sgt. Zechariah Johnson, one of the team members. "So, we tried to be tough about it. We didn't let any little mistakes get to us. We just shouldered down and got through it."
Later in the year, Army Staff Sgts. Jaime Jimenez and Joshua Cavalier, both with the Army National Guard's Warrior Training Center, took second place in the 2017 U.S. Army International Sniper Competition.
While the year saw success in various competitions, it also saw Guard members recognize several anniversaries and milestones.
October marked the 25th anniversary of Youth ChalleNGe, a Guard program providing a pathway for "at-risk" teens to earn their GED certificate or high school diploma while also learning life and coping skills. To date, more than 150,000 teens have graduated nationwide from the program, which started with 10 academies and now boasts 40 academies throughout 30 states.
"It really does more than just offer kids a second chance," said Kim Folsom-Kuster, the national Youth ChalleNGe program manager at the National Guard Bureau. "For some, it's still their first chance. It just gives them that chance to succeed, which makes a difference in their entire life."
The year also marked the 100th anniversary of America's entry into World War I, which saw more than 50,000 Guard members killed or wounded in the course of the war.
During a ceremony in September, the Massachusetts Army National Guard recognized the WWI formation and service of the 26th "Yankee" Infantry Division – the first Guard division, and one of the first Army divisions overall, to deploy overseas during WWI.
The unit is still part of the Massachusetts Army Guard as the 26th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade.
The New York Army National Guard's 42nd Infantry Division, nicknamed the "Rainbow Division," also recognized its WWI history in a ceremony at Garden City, N.Y., the location where it was activated in 1917.
"It's a great day to see our comrades and honor our World War I founders," said retired Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Taluto, who commanded the division in Iraq in 2005, said during the ceremony.
The division has included notable figures such as Sgt. Joyce Kilmer, the renowned writer and poet who died in 1918 while serving with the division in France, and Lt. Col. William "Wild Bill" Donovan, who received the Medal of Honor while serving with the division during WW I and went on to head the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency, during World War II.
This year also marked the 30th year the New York Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Wing has participated in Operation Deep Freeze, which provides logistical support to the National Science Foundation in Antarctica. Over the course of three decades flying the mission, some things have remained constant.
"The weather is our biggest challenge there," said Air Force Maj. Suzanne Nielson, a LC-130 Hercules Skibird pilot with the wing, which is the only U.S. military unit that flies the ski-equipped airplane. "If a storm rolls in you can't take off."
Other notable Guard programs saw continued growth this year. The State Partnership Program, which pairs National Guard elements with partner nations worldwide, added its 73rd partnership when Malaysia joined the program in May.
"I'm hopeful that our partnership will grow over time to areas beyond just the military," said Army Maj. Gen. Bret D. Daugherty, the adjutant general of the Washington National Guard, which was paired with Malaysia. "Areas like commerce, education, health care and energy, these are just a few areas that I think Malaysians and people from the state of Washington can explore together."
Though Malaysia marks the 73 partnership, the SPP includes a total of 79 partner nations. Six Carribean nations are grouped in a regional partnership with the Florida National Guard.
In June the Guard saw new senior enlisted leadership when Command Sgt. Maj. Christopher Kepner, formerly the sergeant major of the Army National Guard, was named the senior enlisted advisor to the chief of the National Guard Bureau.
"He embodies all the qualities we want to represent the Soldiers and Airmen of our National Guard," said Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, chief of the NGB, when he announced Kepner's appointment to Guard leaders. "He will be my most important and trusted advisor as we work together as the NGB senior leadership team to support the men and women you command."
The year also saw continued deployment of Guard members to overseas locations such as Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq and Djibouti.
For the Soldiers of the Kansas Army National Guard's 2nd Battalion, 130th Field Artillery Regiment, serving overseas meant conducting artillery exercises near Camp Beuhring, Kuwait, while working with Kuwaiti land forces.
"This was the first time we were able to fully integrate all sections of the battery on one mission," said 1st Sgt. Gerald Gibson, first sergeant with the battalion's Battery A. "The sections included communications, maintenance, supply, fire direction control, and the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System crews."
Near the end of the year, Lengyel and Kepner visited deployed Guard members, thanking them for their service while reminding them what makes the Guard a unique and sustainable force.
"Innovation is in our DNA," Lengyel said. "It's who we are: You leave [the Guard] better than you found it."
Although 2017 brought many challenges to the Guard, Lengyel said Soldiers and Airmen are prepared for what 2018 may bring.
"The National Guard is more resilient, relevant and ready than ever before," Lengyel said.