ARLINGTON, Va. – When a series of tornadoes slashed across parts of eight Midwest states late in the evening of Dec. 10, Spc. Zach Neisz sprang into action. He grabbed an ax, flashlight and medical kit and drove to Dawson Springs, Kentucky, to help any way he could.
“I couldn’t sit back and not do anything,” said Neisz, a heavy equipment operator with the Kentucky Army National Guard’s 130th Engineer Support Battalion. “It’s devastating to see my town this way.”
More than 600 Kentucky National Guard members, including Neisz, were activated to respond to the devastation left in the tornadoes’ wake. Their primary mission was to assist first responders with search and rescue, debris removal and traffic control.
Neisz said serving in the Guard is a way to repay those who helped him and his family during the ice storms that hit Kentucky in 2009.
“A National Guardsman came out to my house and helped me and my family, and I’ve always wanted to pay that back, too,” said Neisz, adding that’s one reason why he joined the Guard.
Throughout 2021 National Guard Soldiers and Airmen embodied the National Guard’s promise to be “Always Ready and Always There” and continued to serve at the forefront of homeland response missions and overseas deployments.
“As the combat reserve of the Army and Air Force, we are trained and equipped to fight our nation’s wars, but in times of emergency, those same people, training and equipment provide us the ability to respond to our communities when they need us most,” said Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau.
That response became necessary in the nation’s capital in January.
Following the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, more than 26,000 Guard troops mobilized to the District of Columbia to support federal and local officials and ensure the peaceful transfer of power during the 59th Presidential Inauguration Jan. 20.
This was the first time since Hurricane Katrina that Guard elements from every state, territory and the district responded to a single event, according to National Guard Bureau historians.
“It [was] an honor to be called to serve with the largest collection of National Guardsmen in recent times,” said Spc. Jacob Lauria, an infantryman with the Massachusetts Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 181st Infantry Regiment. “The gravity of being here is something that is not lost on any individual. The fact that we are here to support the Capitol Police and affiliated agencies in the peaceful transfer of power is a pretty heavy undertaking. I think everyone feels that responsibility, and we are proud to be here.”
Following the inauguration, approximately 5,000 Guard members remained to help U.S. Capitol Police with security. That was reduced to 2,200 troops by the end of March before the mission ended May 23.
“I’m proud of the Guardsmen and women who left their families and civilian jobs to serve as Soldiers and Airmen in response to the attack on the Capitol,” said Hokanson. “Their selfless service is both important and inspiring.”
The National Guard continued to support COVID-19 response efforts throughout the country this year. As vaccination sites opened nationwide, Guard members assisted state and local officials by administering vaccinations and providing logistical support.
“This is an important, anticipated and much-welcomed chapter in our collective fight against COVID-19,” said Col. Robert C. Mancini, the Virginia National Guard’s top medical officer.
As the noncommissioned officer in charge of a vaccination site for the New Hampshire Army National Guard, Sgt. 1st Class Jennifer Boisvert helped expedite the process.
“We’ve been able to rotate people through very regularly, very easily,” Boisvert said. “From the time you drive in, to the time you get your vaccination, you’re probably only here for about 20 minutes.”
Staff Sgt. Shavonne Santiago, NCOIC of the medical section with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 101st Engineer Battalion, Massachusetts Army Guard, emphasized the mission’s significance.
“We all volunteered to be here with the understanding of the severity of this situation — not just for our country, but for our world – as this pandemic is still very much active,” she said in May, adding that pride and compassion inspired her team “to get our boots on the ground to administer as many vaccines as possible to help save lives.”
As of Dec. 20, Guard members had assisted with the administration of more than 13 million vaccine doses.
While thousands of Guard members supported COVID response efforts, others deployed overseas.
The California Army National Guard’s 40th Combat Aviation Brigade assumed its mission providing aviation support for U.S. Central Command’s Operation Inherent Resolve and Operation Spartan Shield across the Middle East in May.
The 40th CAB comprises Army National Guard units from nine states and an active-component U.S. Army attack helicopter battalion.
“The challenge before us is daunting,” said Col. Alan Gronewold, brigade commander, during a transfer of authority ceremony at Camp Buehring, Kuwait, May 16. “We cover battlespace in two different theaters across five countries and 13 locations, and we’re doing it with less personnel and aircraft than anyone before us. But we are ready – this is what we do.”
National Guard Soldiers and Airmen also played a critical role during Operation Allies Refuge, the Department of State-led effort to evacuate Afghan citizens before the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan Aug. 31.
Air National Guard units joined active-component Air Force counterparts to fly passengers and cargo into and out of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
Soldiers with 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 194th Armor Regiment, Minnesota Army National Guard, or Task Force 1-194, were on the ground helping to secure the airport during the evacuation of U.S. citizens and allies.
Task Force 1-194 mobilized in March to serve as the Regional Response Force based in Camp Buehring. Its Soldiers pivoted to Afghanistan to secure vital sectors of the airport in Kabul and provide humanitarian assistance to U.S. citizens, special immigrant visa holders, and their families.
National Guard units also provided other support during the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The West Virginia Army National Guard’s 111th Theater Engineer Brigade oversaw the construction of lodging, medical, dining and related facilities at U.S. bases in Kuwait and Qatar that housed many who fled Afghanistan. In addition to engineer operations, the brigade provided command and control, medical, and logistical support for more than 5,000 Afghan evacuees.
“I could not be prouder of the successes of the 111th Engineer Brigade while deployed,” said Col. Robert Kincaid Jr., commander of the unit. “Every Soldier played their role in accomplishing all our missions, and I will be forever grateful for their commitment and dedication.”
Stateside, Guard members also supported Operation Allies Welcome, assisting Afghans resettling in the United States.
National Guard Soldiers and Airmen from nearly every state and territory assisted with initial processing, medical care, security, translation services, transportation and logistical support for approximately 65,000 Afghan refugees at eight military installations nationwide.
“At the time I signed up for this, I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew something had to be done,” said Air Force Master Sgt. Christopher Davaz of the Washington Air National Guard’s 256th Intelligence Squadron. “That’s pretty much the inherent mission of the National Guard … have a giant group of people prepared to do whatever’s required and do the right thing for people in need.”
The Guard was also busy responding to natural disasters throughout the country.
In late August, Hurricane Ida made landfall near Port Fourchon, Louisiana, as one of the strongest storms to hit Louisiana. The Category 4 storm caused widespread flooding, power outages and property damage.
Nearly 9,000 Soldiers and Airmen from 14 states responded in the aftermath, but the preparation began in the days leading up to Ida making landfall.
“We mobilized all of our available Soldiers and Airmen for the response,” said Maj. Gen. Lee Hopkins, the Louisiana National Guard’s assistant adjutant general for Army, adding that vehicles, equipment and personnel were prepositioned throughout the state based on the projected storm path.
“As soon as landfall happened, and the winds allowed, all those high-water vehicles and helicopters, we launched them,” he said. “We were out in 31 parishes, conducting search and rescue and looking for the people who were stranded in Louisiana.”
Guard members rescued 397 people and 65 pets. They also distributed more than 4.4 million bottles of water, 3.8 million meals-ready-to-eat and 224,000 sandbags.
Out west, record-setting wildfires blazed across large swaths of land. Guard members from California, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Montana, Nevada and Wyoming battled fires in California, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Montana.
“It’s pretty hot, it’s pretty smoky,” said Lt. Col. John Holland, a pilot with the 153rd Airlift Wing, Wyoming Air National Guard, who flew a C-130 Hercules aircraft equipped with the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System to fight wildfires in California. “Occasionally, the smoke will clear out because the wind will pick up, but when the wind picks up, the fire tends to get up and run and spread quickly.”
“We used to talk about ‘fire season,’” Hokanson said in July. “It’s really a ‘fire year’ now. Fires really almost go year-round.”
While the National Guard supported overseas missions and aided government authorities with homeland response, it also fostered and grew partnerships worldwide.
In 2021, the National Guard continued to grow the State Partnership Program, a Department of Defense initiative that pairs National Guard elements with the armed forces of partner countries in a cooperative, mutually beneficial relationship. The SPP now includes 85 partnerships with 92 countries – just under half the world’s nations.
“Partnerships are essential to the security and stability of Europe and Africa, and the role the National Guard plays in that stability is significant,” said Maj. Gen. Joe Jarrard, U.S. Army Europe and Africa’s deputy commanding general for the Army National Guard. “Thirty-seven European and African nations participate in the State Partnership Program. These National Guard Soldiers work, train, and even mobilize together with their partners – building mutual trust and enduring relationships that significantly improve security cooperation.”
To maintain these relationships, the SPP conducts roughly 1,000 events globally each year. These events can include anything from strategic planning conferences, such as when Hawaii National Guard members went to Indonesia for multinational Exercise Gema Bhakti, to tactical events like a platoon exchange where the Pennsylvania Army National Guard hosted their Lithuanian counterparts, both in September.
“Building enduring partnerships at the international, federal, state and local levels contributes to our nation’s strength and readiness,” Jarrod said. “Through 85 State Partnership Program relationships, the National Guard is engaged with 45% of the world’s nations, and ensures the Department of Defense has capable, trusted and interoperable partners at our side.”
These multinational partnerships displayed just one aspect of the capabilities of the Guard in 2021.
“Whatever the mission – fighting America’s wars, securing the homeland or building partnerships – our Soldiers and Airmen provide extraordinary service to their communities and our nation,” said Hokanson.