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Home : News : State Partnership Program
NEWS | May 31, 2024

Illinois Army Guard Takes on Exercise Immediate Response

By Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy, National Guard Bureau

USTKA, Poland – The seaside location couldn’t have been more idyllic. Gentle rolling sand dunes sloped gracefully to the water as the waves rhythmically lapped the coastline. A meandering breeze occasionally fluttered past, carrying a hint of the sea through the nearby pine trees and beachside scrub brush. 

The beach was quiet. Peaceful. Relaxing, almost. If not for all the artillery fire. 

That came from B Battery, 2nd Battalion, 123rd Field Artillery Regiment, Illinois Army National Guard, whose firing position stretched along the sandy shoreline of the Baltic Sea, a few sand dunes or so below their location. The battalion’s other batteries were set up nearby, slightly inland but still along the coast. 

The firing was part of the battalion’s role in providing artillery support during Immediate Response 24, a training exercise in Poland and the Czech Republic running throughout May that included more than 22,000 service members from the United States, Poland, the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom.

The battalion, set up in a training area near Ustka, used the exercise to build readiness in two ways. 

“One thing that we’re building that’s key here is our continued relationship with Poland,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jeremy Miles, the battalion commander. They also built internal battalion readiness by firing artillery qualification tables in an austere environment. 

Building relationships and strengthening interoperability with partner nations was one of the key goals of the exercise. For the unit, doing that in Poland was the easy part. 

The Illinois National Guard and Poland have been paired together in the Department of Defense National Guard State Partnership Program for 30 years – one of the earliest pairings in the program, which began in 1993. 

The program links National Guard elements with partner nations worldwide for military-to-military exchanges and mutual training events. 

For Miles, who previously served as the officer who coordinated those exchanges between the Polish military and the Illinois Guard, being back in Poland is “like a friendly hug,” he said.

“It’s kind of an easy transition to come over here,” said Miles. “We work well together. And we have for so long, to include multiple years of co-deployments with the Polish.”

Forward observers with the Polish army’s 6th Airborne Brigade have been working with the battalion’s forward observers during the exercise, calling in fire missions. 

“That builds the generational readiness that we’re talking about,” said Miles, adding that exercises like this help junior leaders gain experience, which they can apply as they advance to higher positions.

“Seeing the Polish soldiers and working with them is great,” said Spc. Austin Rodriguez, an artillery crewmember with the battalion’s B Battery. 

The exercise marked Rodriguez’s first time in Poland. 

“The best part about being here, I would say, is just being here,” he said. “This is my first time in Europe. I haven’t been across the Atlantic before, so it’s a real big treat for me.”

According to some, Rodriquez’s gun crew is the best in the Army.

“I’d put these guys up against any gun crew anywhere in the Army,” said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Terry Rutherford, the gun chief of Rodriguez’s crew. “Active component, Guard, it don’t matter.”

Rutherford may be biased, but he’s also quick to point out what makes them so good.  

“They’re a solid group,” he said. “There’s not one person that can’t do everything in this gun section right now. If somebody slips, it’s not a big deal. We just pick each other up.”

And they put rounds downrange. Fast. And accurately. 

“They are the absolute best,” said Rutherford, who enlisted in 1982. “I’ve done this for a long time. I’ve been a gun chief for about 12 years, and this is the best section I’ve ever been associated with and, in my opinion, best section anywhere.”

And taking part in Immediate Response makes them that much better, said Rutherford. 

“It gets them shooting in a different environment, in a way and a means that they’ve not done before,” said Rutherford. “And you take a gun crew like that, as good as they are, and all it’s going to do is elevate them to the next level.”

During the exercise, the battalion worked with Soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion, 14th Field Artillery Regiment, which operates the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS.  

“So that’s one aspect that we don’t get to see very often,” said Miles about working with the HIMARS unit. “Working internationally, with our international partners, synchronizing our fires, it’s just a whole gamut of opportunities these guys get to experience.” 

He said it required a lot of teamwork and coordination, including moving the battalion and all its equipment across the Atlantic.

“There is lots of equipment, lots of moving parts requiring coordination all the way up to the theater level down to individual batteries,” he said. “And it’s just been amazing to watch it come together. There have been hiccups and trials and tribulations, but persistence and perseverance will get you to the end of the day.”

Miles credits the Soldiers of the unit for making the mission a success.  

“They are so proud of what they do, and I couldn’t be prouder of what they’re doing,” he said. “They have just crazy-high morale being out here on this mission. It’s really refreshing to watch them operate.” 

Rodriquez agreed. 

“I’m coming up to the end of my [enlistment] contract,” he said. “I believe this is a real big ticket to probably persuade me to stay in.”

Rutherford said he’s not surprised by any of it. 

“We’re the king of battle,” he said. “There’s none better than us.”