OMAHA, Neb. – Seven Nebraska Army National Guard Soldiers with the 181st Engineer Detachment (Firefighter Team) based in Norfolk gathered with immediate family for a brief send-off ceremony May 17 before their yearlong deployment to Romania.
“I’m excited to go over and have this opportunity to train and learn and travel and experience new cultures,” said Spc. Nicholas Wimmer, a 27-year-old firefighter from Council Bluffs, Iowa. “Leaving my family is probably what I’m most nervous about, but I know everybody has the best intentions. We will put the mission first and get everything done.”
Wimmer, who leaves behind his wife and two young daughters for this first deployment, said he didn’t have additional concerns over the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As a community volunteer firefighter, he said he knows there are plenty of resources, masks and hand sanitizer available to support his loved ones.
“We’ve just got a great support system,” Wimmer said. “I do not have any doubts leaving my family. They are in good hands, and my parents are always here so that if my wife and children should need help, they always have back up and a place to go.”
Due to restrictions on gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic, the ceremony was closed to the public. The event was granted an exception to policy by Gov. Pete Ricketts to allow for more than 10 people, but social distancing and other health measure rules still applied.
“During this time of pandemic our enemies may think they can threaten our safety and security and take advantage of us, and that’s why your mission now is more vital than ever,” Ricketts said in a video message. “All of us here at home will be keeping you in our thoughts and prayers as you deploy and wish you a safe return. And I’m confident with the work that we’re doing back here, that when you come back, we’ll be able to celebrate together.”
The 181st is one of the smallest units in the Nebraska Army National Guard. Like all National Guard units, it has both a federal mission and a state mission. The federal mission is to provide fire prevention/protection, aircraft-crash/rescue, natural cover-fire and HAZMAT responses wherever deployed. The state-directed mission focuses on wildland fire response.
For this deployment, the seven members will train and operate for one year alongside Romanian partners to broaden mutual understanding and strengthen interoperability.
Romania joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 2004 and has established itself as a steadfast ally of the United States and NATO. The country continues to improve its capabilities for NATO and multinational operations and has repeatedly deployed forces and assets in support of shared national security interests, including significant contributions of troops, equipment and other assistance in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Kosovo.
“Soldiers, please take as much as you can from this deployment,” said State Command Sgt. Maj. Scott Hansen in a recorded video message. As part of a statewide restructuring, the Nebraska Army National Guard is doubling the size of its firefighting force. When the Soldiers return from deployment, they will be expected to share their experiences and train others.
“We look forward to those lessons that you learn, how to make us better, and how to make us the best firefighting team in the 54 states and territories,” Hansen said.
The last time the 181st mobilized to federal duty was 2011-2012 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom when deployed to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.
Domestically, this unit most recently responded to the 2019 historic floods across the state, providing traffic control and other support.
Of historical note, the unit also activated to battle an industrial propane tank fire in Norfolk in December 2009. The unit helped bring the propane-fueled blaze under control in below-zero wind chills and helped evacuate an area where nearly 8,000 residents were at risk if the blaze could not be contained.
“I know many things are unpredictable and upside down right now, and that must make leaving your families for this deployment even more difficult,” said Norfolk Mayor Josh Moenning in a recorded video message. “But one thing is consistent, and that is the commitment of this unit over time. Whether it’s helping with historic flooding recovery or battling industrial propane tanks – and yes, Norfolk still remembers that one – or serving us around the world, this unit has always stepped up and been committed to helping others, and I know you will live out that commitment over the next year in Eastern Europe.”
“Please know your community is thankful for you, grateful to you and is proud of you, and we’ll anxiously await your safe return,” Moenning said. “Thank you.”