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NEWS | Sept. 4, 2020

Rescues and wildfires: National Guard responds on West Coast

By Sgt. 1st Class Peter Morrison National Guard Bureau

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Rescue missions and support to civil authorities fighting wildfires were the focus of West Coast troop visits by the National Guard's highest-ranking general and his senior enlisted advisor this week.

Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief, National Guard Bureau, and Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Tony Whitehead, senior enlisted advisor, visited Soldiers and Airmen in Alaska and California.

"Times like this – in fact, 2020 in general – proves just what a tremendous value the National Guard is to our nation," Hokanson said. "In early June, we had 120,000 National Guardsmen and women on duty at the height of our COVID-19 and civil disturbance response."

About 64,000 Guard members are still on duty today, including more than 18,350 troops who are providing medical support to communities nationwide amid the pandemic.

Preventing the spread of COVID is a high priority for the 49th Missile Defense Battalion, an Alaska National Guard unit on permanent active duty in Fort Greely, Alaska, said Army Lt. Col. Paul Tappen, commander.

The 49th Missile Defense Battalion provides operational control and security for the nation's ground-based interceptor mission.

"We are the 300 defending the 300 million," Tappen said. "We have systems in place so our teams all remain healthy. This is a no-fail mission."

Stopping at Eielson Air Force Base, Fairbanks, Alaska, to visit the Airmen of the Alaska Guard's 168th Air Refueling Wing, Hokanson commented on the strategic advantage Alaska offers, based on its location, to reach across the world while conducting conventional and Arctic refueling operations.

The Alaska National Guard independently developed an Arctic search-and-rescue package that allows it to respond to potential large-scale mass-casualty events in the Arctic.

Search and rescue missions in Alaska are challenging in the best of conditions, and the Alaska Guard's 176th Wing, stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Anchorage, meets those challenges day after day.

Members of the 176th are credited with more than 1,700 lives saved since 1991, when the mission stood up. The Wing consists of the 210th Rescue Squadron (HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters); 211th Rescue Squadron (HC-130 Combat King II); and 212th Rescue Squadron (pararescue personnel), making up Alaska's rescue triad.

Further South, the California National Guard is also conducting medical evacuations but doing them while battling wildfires that have already burned 1.6 million acres across the state and forced 82,000 residents to evacuate.

As an important partner to Cal Fire, the National Guard is also working on hand crews, providing cutting-edge ground communication capabilities to remote locations, providing real-time thermal imagery to incident commands and dropping water and retardant on fires.

Hokanson and Whitehead ended their troop visits in California, and the general praised Guard members for their historic response to the COVID-19 pandemic, hurricanes, wildfires and civil disturbances.

"As the chief of a force of more than 450,000 highly capable men and women, I couldn't be more proud of our National Guard's efforts to help our communities heal in this unprecedented time," Hokanson said. "This is what the National Guard is built for. We train for this, and we expect to be part of the solution. In fact, it's the reason many men and women join the National Guard."