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Guard members reflect on 2019, prepare for new decade

By Tech. Sgt. Erich B. Smith | National Guard Bureau | Dec. 30, 2019

ARLINGTON, Va. – From cyber missions to training with international partners, supporting the war fight and responding to natural disasters, 2019 was a busy year for the National Guard.

The year began with Guard members helping out during numerous winter storms.

More than 450 New York National Guard members were on duty in January responding to a snowstorm that blanketed most of New York, including New York City. Many of those same troops were back at it when gusting windstorms in February meant clearing debris from roadways and conducting traffic control operations.

In March, massive flooding affected thousands of people in Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa and other Midwest states, prompting governors to activate more than 340 Guard members. Airmen from the Missouri Air National Guard's 139th Airlift Wing used sandbags to stem the flow of running water, while Soldiers with the Nebraska Army National Guard's Company B, 2nd Battalion, 135th Aviation Regiment, used CH-47 Chinook helicopters to drop bales of hay for displaced livestock.

"We pushed hay out of the back of one of our helicopters in order to feed cows that were stranded," said Air Force Maj. Gen. Daryl Bohac, the adjutant general of the Nebraska National Guard. "The floodwaters have trapped the cattle and isolated them."

In Colorado, winter storms came as late as April, and the Colorado National Guard activated 50 members to help first responders with transportation needs, using Humvees to get to hard-to-reach places.

"The [Colorado National Guard] is always ready, always there to assist our neighbors [and] to save lives, prevent suffering and mitigate great property damage," said Army Col. Scott Sherman, commander of Joint Task Force Centennial, which leads the Colorado Guard's response to domestic events.

As winter storms subsided, many Guard units shifted their attention to wildfires.

In May, Alaska Army National Guard fire suppression efforts included water bucket drops from UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters while ground troops provided traffic management and evacuation support using Humvees.

"Soldiers are manning traffic control positions 24/7," said Army Capt. Ralph Harris, commander of the Alaska Army National Guard's 297th Military Police Company. "Some folks were asked to leave their homes, but had to return to their homes first to prepare, so our MPs check them in and out for accountability and to ensure people are aware of the unsafe roads for travel."

More than 100 Soldiers and Airmen with the California National Guard's Task Force Rattlesnake cleared out potential fuels, such as dead trees, dry vegetation and other flammable material, throughout the state.

"Everyone's really motivated and excited to be a part of this project," said Army 2nd Lt. Jonathan Green, the officer in charge of a firefighting team with the California Army National Guard's 115th Regional Support Group. "We're excited to hit the ground, make progress and hopefully prevent future fires from happening."

But wildfires and snowstorms weren't the only natural disasters that tested the Guard's readiness. As the active hurricane season arrived, Guard members were primed to respond.

After Hurricane Dorian ravaged the Bahamas, Airmen from the Tennessee Air National Guard's 118th Wing provided imagery analysis, including damage assessments, infrastructure reports and identification of potentially hazardous material.

"I am proud of our Airmen for their tireless efforts to respond in the affected areas and from right here in Nashville, Tennessee," said Air Force Lt. Col. Aaron Wilson, commander of the 118th Intelligence Group. "This is what we train for. This is why America has a National Guard: to save lives at home, to fight our nation's wars and to build partnerships."

More than 5,500 Guard members were on duty, positioned to respond in the aftermath of Dorian.

Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau, highlighted how Guard members were ahead of the storm as it made its way toward landfall.

"[Guard members] will be poised to work and ready for their communities and states – from the inception of preparation, through the response, through the recovery – until the [local first] responders can handle this without any military assistance," said Lengyel.

But first responders weren't the only partners the Guard had in 2019.

The Guard saw continued growth and activity with the State Partnership Program, a Defense Department priority that pairs Guard elements with partner nations worldwide.

The Nebraska National Guard was paired with Rwanda's military, marking the 78th partnership in the SPP.

"I know that the training opportunities, cultural experiences and professional exchange of ideas that the SPP makes possible will benefit both the Nebraska National Guard and Rwanda for years to come," said Bohac, the adjutant general of the Nebraska Guard.

During the year, other Guard elements worked with their SPP partners.

New York Air National Guard members worked with South African firefighters near Cape Town, South Africa, honing their skills battling brush fires. The effort was part of the partnership between the New York National Guard and the South African National Defence Force.

"It was a great experience to be part of an international partnership and to be able to learn from other firefighters as well as show them what we are capable of," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Jodi Ruther, a firefighter with the New York Air Guard's 109th Airlift Wing.

She was pleased to see many women involved in the training.

"Hopefully, encouraging more women to join firefighting [teams] will show that we are just as capable as the men in the world of wildland firefighting," Ruther said.

In Estonia, military police and security forces from the Maryland National Guard participated in Spring Storm, an annual exercise conducted by Estonia's military that focused on convoy security, detainee operations and tactical patrols.

"This is not a typical training environment for the military police detachment," said Spc. Angelique Helkowski, with the Maryland Army National Guard's 290th Military Police Company. "When we train stateside, we do the same things repetitively. This gets us out into nature and relates more to a deployed environment."

For Tech. Sgt. Kevin Miner, a security forces specialist with the Maryland Air National Guard's 175th Wing, working with a mixed group of U.S. and Estonian soldiers meant his squad had to operate more efficiently and effectively.

"Although my squad had never trained together, we were able to mobilize as a team," Miner said. "It was a very easy transition, and we had unit cohesion immediately."

The year also had its share of milestones and anniversaries.

In early June, aircrews from the Kentucky Air National Guard's 123rd Airlift Wing, flying two C-130 Hercules aircraft, participated in the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in Normandy, France. The aircrew performed seven flyovers in the C-130s and helped airdrop nearly 1,000 U.S. and Allied paratroopers as part of the commemoration.

"This was an incredible opportunity," said Chief Master Sgt. Jeff Brown, the loadmaster superintendent at the wing. "To be involved with something so significant – I never thought that in my career I would get to do something like this. We have some young guys with us, too, and it has been great for them to see what it takes to go into a large exercise like this."

In North Carolina, a Virginia Army National Guard artillery unit took part in a unique live-fire exercise: firing from a waterborne landing craft.

Though artillery crews employed their guns from landing craft during the D-Day invasion in World War II, the tactic has not often been used since that era.

Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Turner, with the Virginia Army Guard's 1st Battalion, 111th Field Artillery Regiment, said the unusual setting for the artillery exercise presented challenges.

Every time a shell was fired, he said, the recoil from the shot would displace the howitzer on the landing craft.

"Being on the boat, we had to situate sandbags behind the tires [on the howitzer] as well as the spade," said Turner. "What we've rigged up seems to work."

The year also marked the 30th anniversary of the National Guard Counterdrug Program, which has Guard members working with law enforcement agencies to combat the flow of illegal drugs into the United States.

"This program allows the Citizen-Soldier [and Airman] to support law enforcement agencies down to our communities, making it a solid grassroots initiative," said Army Col. Miguel Torres, the head coordinator for the Texas National Guard Joint Counterdrug Task Force, one of the first units to conduct counter-narcotics support missions with law enforcement. "Guardsmen can help do the nuts and bolts of things and allow law enforcement agencies to put people behind bars."

In July, Army Lt. Gen. Daniel Hokanson took the reins of the Army National Guard.

Hokanson, previously the National Guard Bureau's vice chief, said it's the Soldiers who make leading the Army Guard worthwhile.

"With all the changes nearly four centuries have brought with them, what has made the National Guard great remains the same – that's our people," Hokanson said, adding that close to 30,000 Army Guard Soldiers are currently deployed worldwide.

Air National Guard members deployed as well, fulfilling a variety of roles, such as providing tactical airlift throughout the U.S. Central Command area of operations.

C-130 aircrews from the Montana Air National Guard executed nonstop missions flying personnel, equipment and supplies to established bases and austere locations.

"It's a very consistent flow here. But that's the beautiful thing about the C-130 – it can land on short runways," said Air Force Lt. Col. David Smith, commander of the 779th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron. "Our flying schedule is extremely busy."

Meanwhile, Soldiers with the North Carolina Army National Guard's 30th Armored Brigade Combat Team operated M2A2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles in the Middle East in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.

"We are here as American Soldiers, one team, to do what our nation needs us to do," said Army Col. Robert Bumgardner, commander of the 30th ABCT. "We didn't come here to sit and watch. We came here to be part of the fight."

While the Guard's support of the war fight continued, cybersecurity activities in Texas reflected a different battle.

"In May, one county – Jackson County – got hit with ransomware," said Army Maj. Gen. Tracy Norris, the adjutant general of the Texas National Guard. "It disrupted county services. People weren't able to transfer property, the police doing a background check weren't able to pull up that information."

Texas Guard cyber teams were called in.

"We had people out there within 12 hours to do an assessment on what had happened and to get that county back online," said Norris. "We helped them get to a recovery point where their IT professionals could come in and get the county back to where it could deliver services."

Later in the year, the Ohio National Guard forged ties with the University of Akron to open a "cyber range" – a virtual training ground and testing site to enhance cybersecurity.

"This cyber range for us is a big deal," said Army Col. Daniel Shank, the assistant adjutant general for the Ohio Army Guard. "The cyber threat is changing, and we have to change with it. The military understands the threat, and we've actually changed our doctrine."

Lengyel said the more than 3,900 troops that make up the Guard's cyber element include traditional part-time units and full-time units that work directly for U.S. Cyber Command.

"The Air National Guard always provides two [cyber protection teams], and on the Army side, the Army [National Guard] always provides one, that are continuously mobilized and doing duty for U.S. Cyber Command and the cyber mission force," said Lengyel.

He said the Guard must continue to meet the challenges the cyber domain presents.

"When I first joined the National Guard, cyber was not part of our vocabulary," he said. "Now, it's one of our daily battlegrounds."

The National Guard celebrated its 383rd birthday on Dec. 13, the same day two Army Guard members became the first female enlisted Soldiers to complete the challenging U.S. Army Ranger School.

Army Staff Sgt. Jessica Smiley, a military police officer with the South Carolina Army National Guard, and Army Sgt. Danielle Farber, a medical instructor with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, joined a small group of other women who have successfully negotiated the iconic school.

Farber attributed her success to seeing herself as a Soldier first.

"Come into it knowing you're going to be doing things that every other male that comes through here has to do," said Farber. "Don't come through here and expect any sort of special treatment, because it won't happen."

For Smiley, putting on the Ranger tab meant never giving up.

"My mindset going into this was to leave 100 percent on the table and never have a regret or look back and say, 'I should have pushed harder or I should have done something different,'" said Smiley. "I gave 100 percent. I did everything that I could, and now here I am."

With specialized training options, multiple mission sets and continued deployments, the Guard is an important part of the joint force, said Lengyel.

"Right now, about 40,000 Guard members are serving (overseas) worldwide," he said. "I wish I could visit with and thank every single one. It's an extraordinary force that has contributed more than 1.1 million individual overseas deployments since 9/11."

The Guard continues to stand ready as a new decade approaches.

"It is imperative the National Guard remains an operational force, as part of our Army and Air Force, that helps protect and secure our interests at home and abroad," Lengyel said.