ARLINGTON, Va. -- The National Guard closed out a busy year that saw Guard members deploy overseas, take part in international training exercises, and respond to emergencies and large-scale natural disasters at home.
Those natural disasters included two back-to-back hurricanes, starting with Hurricane Florence, which made landfall in mid-September along the North Carolina coast. After coming ashore, the storm moved slowly across the region causing massive flooding and isolating many communities in North and South Carolina.
"We've dealt with this before, but not at these record levels," said Army Maj. Gen. Bob Livingston, adjutant general of the South Carolina National Guard. "[Florence] slowed down and picked up a tremendous amount of water."
In southern North Carolina, flooding made many major roads leading into the town of Wilmington impassable, said Army Sgt. Michael Justo, a helicopter crew chief with the Connecticut Army National Guard, whose unit was part of the response efforts.
"We helicoptered in all the food they needed for the hospital," he said.
Ultimately, more than 6,600 Soldiers and Airmen from close to 30 states supported civil authorities in response to Florence, including elements of the Alaska Air National Guard's 212th Rescue Squadron (RQS) and the New York Air National Guard's 106th Rescue Wing, who saved 19 individuals from floodwaters in one day.
"It was a cool thing to witness all the … Guard teams coming together to help those in need," said Air Force Master Sgt. Cody Inman, a pararescue team leader with the 212th RQS.
The Guard was still active with the response to Florence when Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle in early October.
Within hours of the storm making landfall, the first elements of the Florida Army National Guard's Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment, arrived in affected areas, providing not only security, but general assistance to citizens.
"Our unit's part was not only facilitating local agencies but [helping] the residents, so they can clean up and at the same time feel like their stuff was secure when they were not home," said Spc. Victor R. Reyes-Soler, with HHC, 2/124th Infantry Regiment.
Those storms were still yet to come when family, friends and service members gathered in February for an award ceremony and remembrance of Army Pfc. Emmanuel Mensah, a light-wheeled vehicle mechanic with the New York Army National Guard's 107th Military Police Company. Mensah died in an apartment fire in the Bronx, New York, after rescuing four and heading back into the burning building to save others.
"Difficult though it may be, please think of this ceremony as an opportunity not to mourn, but to celebrate Private First Class Mensah, an unselfish Soldier of incredible bravery, who sacrificed his own life to save several others, and while attempting to save more," said Army Lt. Gen. Timothy Kadavy, director of the Army National Guard, during the ceremony.
Mensah, who died on Dec. 28, 2017, was posthumously awarded the Soldiers Medal, the Army's highest award for bravery and valor outside of combat.
While Kadavy and others remembered and honored Mensah, other Guard members were responding to winter storms that clobbered many eastern states during the early part of the year.
In January, vehicle recovery teams from the South Carolina Army National Guard's Field Maintenance Shop 5 assisted the South Carolina Highway Patrol with freeing stuck drivers in the aftermath of an ice storm that struck the region.
Meanwhile, Soldiers with the Virginia Army National Guard were also on duty in January when snow fell throughout the area.
"I am proud of how quickly and safely our personnel were able to rapidly respond and position troops and equipment so they are ready to respond if needed," said Army Maj. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, adjutant general of the Virginia National Guard.
In March, more than 400 Pennsylvania National Guard members responded to winter storms by conducting wellness checks, assisting local authorities with traffic control and transporting key response personnel throughout the affected regions.
Winter weather also meant athletic competition, as Guard members took part in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. The Soldier-athletes, including four members of the New York Army National Guard, took part in the luge and bobsled events. Army Capt. Mike Kohn, of the Virginia Army National Guard, served as the assistant coach of the bobsled team.
"I know that I can count on everybody on my team," said Army Sgt. Justin Olsen, assigned to the New York National Guard's Joint Force Headquarters and who competed in the four-man bobsled event. "Especially because they're Soldiers. [The other team members] are extremely more accomplished in their military career than I am. So whether they look up to me in the sport, I look up to them for what they've done off the ice."
While none of the Soldiers received medals in this year's Olympic Games, many will continue training in preparation for future competitions.
"Going to the Olympics isn't enough for me," said Army Sgt. Emily Sweeney, a luge athlete and military police officer with the New York Army Guard, who crashed during her final run in this year's games. "I want to go to the Olympics and do something. So, it's not over. The work isn't over."
As winter faded into early spring, Guard members were called up to duty along the Southwest border, assisting U.S. Customs and Border Protection in support roles as part of Operation Guardian Support. Roughly 2,100 Guard members were on duty throughout the year at various locations along the border providing engineering, communications, vehicle and logistical support.
In May, volcanic eruptions in Hawaii saw close to 400 Guard members from both Hawaii and other states assist local authorities by monitoring air quality, evacuating affected areas and providing security.
"We have roving patrols going through the area affected by volcanic activity," said Command Sgt. Maj. Elva A. Schaben, the senior enlisted advisor of the Hawaii Army National Guard, adding the Guard's overall mission while responding to the volcanic eruptions was "to save lives, prevent human suffering and to allow the people affected by volcanic activity to live their lives the best they can."
With summer heat came wildfires in many regions of California and other western states, and Guard members responded in support of state and local officials.
California Air National Guard members flew MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft over the Carr Wildfire near Redding, California, gathering data to assist the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) in directing resources to fight the blaze.
"This is one fire that's very unpredictable," said CAL FIRE Capt. Robert DeCamp. "But we can track it with the capabilities the Guard provides us."
California Army National Guard aircrews also took on wildfire suppression duty in the state, using UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters -- the newest version of the venerable helicopter -- to fight them. For aircrews, the new model Black Hawk made a difference.
"It's a more efficient rotor system particularly at the low airspeeds that we're operating at with regard to firefighting operations," said Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Doug Martine, a pilot with the California Army Guard's 1st Assault Helicopter Battalion, 140th Aviation Regiment. "The engines are a little bit more unleashed, so we get to get some more torque and lifting out of it."
Just north, in Oregon, Guard members were also called out for wildfire duty and flew similar missions dropping water and fire retardant on wildfires in that state.
Meanwhile, aircrews with the Nevada Air National Guard's 152nd Airlift Wing -- the "High Rollers" -- flew C-130 Hercules aircraft equipped with the Modular Airborne Firefighting System, or MAFFS, in response to wildfires in Colorado. The MAFFS allows crews to drop up to 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in roughly six seconds.
"We've read in the news about the devastation from the fires in Colorado and we're prepared to do anything we're asked to do to help fight the fires," said Air Force Lt. Col. Steve Mills, commander of the wing's 192nd Airlift Squadron, as he and other aircrew members geared up to head to Colorado.
Across the country, New York Army National Guard members battled wildfires just south of the state's border with Canada, dropping more than 100,000 gallons of water on fires in Flatrock State Forest in July.
Back in California, Guard members spent the fall months battling the Camp Fire, one of the largest wildfires in California history. For some Guard members, the wildfires proved to be extraordinarily challenging.
"It was definitely the most intense mode of flight that I've flown," said Army 1st Lt. Vincent Sherrill, a helicopter pilot with the California Army Guard's 1/140th Aviation Regiment. "When you're in a service mission like this, people's homes are at risk, people's live are at risk, and you're doing some pretty serious flying in some pretty serious conditions."
While many Guard members were busy battling wildfires, others were battling cyber threats.
"Every day something new pops up and even we get taken by surprise," said Air Force Senior Airman Logan Shipley, a cyber security specialist with the Oregon Air National Guard's 173rd Fighter Wing.
Shipley, and other cyber specialists throughout the Guard, were not only on duty deterring cyber threats, but also took part in numerous training exercises throughout the year. That included Patriot Warrior, a training exercise held at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, that provided Soldiers and Airmen the opportunity to integrate cyber skills in a highly challenging environment.
"These scenarios provide our Soldiers, and also the Airmen, with a very realistic outlook on what both entities could expect in the real world," said Army Maj. Robert Bell, the operations and plans officer with the Delaware Army National Guard's 261st Theater Tactical Signal Brigade. "Everyone learns great lessons in training like this. It develops different skills that each other has learned and also builds confidence in our Airmen and Soldiers."
In addition to cyber exercises, Guard members also continued to participate in joint and multi-national exercises throughout the world.
More than 700 Soldiers from the Indiana Army National Guard's 76th Infantry Brigade Combat Team took part in Pacific Pathways, a series of training exercises throughout the Pacific region. The brigade served as the command and control element for the exercises, marking the first time a National Guard unit has served in a leadership role overseeing the training event.
Numerous Guard units took part in exercises like Saber Strike, held in Poland and the Baltic region of Europe.
"The significance of the training that will be gained from all of the units and countries involved cannot be understated," said Air Force Lt. Col. Mark "Kidd" Garceau, a project officer with the Colorado Air National Guard's 140th Wing, who took part in Saber Strike.
More than 18,000 service members from 19 countries participated in Saber Strike. For Soldiers with the Michigan Army National Guard's 464th Quartermaster Company, that meant running 24-hour operations to provide laundry and shower services for many of those taking part.
"We are here to help boost the morale of the Soldier," said Army Sgt. Carlo Grier, with the 464th QM Company. "There is nothing better than a hot shower and clean clothes after a long day's work."
Other Army Guard Soldiers took part in brigade training rotations to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, or the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana. That, and other training scenarios, were part of Army Guard 4.0, which represents the next step in realistic, intensive training to prepare for deployment. As part of that, Soldiers spend more time in the field honing their skills, allowing the Army Guard to deploy quicker and more effectively to a variety of missions worldwide.
"Our high-priority units -- such as armored brigade combat teams, Stryker brigade combat teams, attack-reconnaissance battalions and critical enablers -- must be ready on short notice for unspecified missions," said Kadavy, the Army Guard director, of Army Guard 4.0. "We have to maintain the readiness of these units in order to respond to emerging demands."
That increased focus was clear to Soldiers with the Kentucky Army National Guard's 149th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, who in June took part in a two-week training exercise that tied directly to the Army Guard 4.0 initiative.
"It definitely felt like we were on deployment," said Army Sgt. Dustin Mullins, of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 149th MEB. "The brigade trained much closer together and the tempo was much faster."
That focus on more intensive training was brought home to many Army and Air Guard units who deployed this year. Many of those deployments were to Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait and the Horn of Africa.
For Soldiers of the West Virginia Army National Guard's 156th Military Police Company, deploying meant performing law and order duties at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan.
"I think this is a great broadening experience for them [the unit's Soldiers], working with so many different cultures, militaries and civilians," said Army Capt. John Kiser, commander the 156th MP Company, of the deployment.
While many headed to Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait, for about 220 Soldiers with the New York Army Guard's 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, deployment meant serving in Ukraine to work with and mentor Ukrainian army units. Part of the Joint Multi-national Training Group -- Ukraine, the Soldiers focused on training based on interoperability with NATO elements.
"We're all extremely well trained -- both in the military and the civilian side -- as we're going to bring that skill set to JMTG-U and help the Ukrainians become better and more interoperable with NATO forces," said Army Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas Ciampolillo, the senior enlisted advisor of the 27th IBCT.
This year was also one of significant milestones.
In May, the Guard celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Department of Defense's State Partnership Program (SPP), which pairs National Guard elements with partner nations worldwide.
"We are happy to celebrate the great pride that we take in our 25 years of rich history, partnership, and friendship," said Army Maj. Gen. Gregory Vadnais, the adjutant general of the Michigan National Guard, celebrating the Michigan Guard's 25-year SPP partnership with Latvia. "I want to say thank you to all the Soldiers and Airmen who have served side-by-side with our Latvian partners. You are great partners and great friends."
The pairing of the Michigan Guard with Latvia was one of the original three partnerships in the program. The other original partnerships include the Pennsylvania National Guard's partnership with Lithuania and the Maryland National Guard's pairing with Estonia.
The SPP now includes 75 partnerships with 81 countries. The 75th partnership -- the West Virginia National Guard and Qatar -- was announced in May.
"I think it's a testament to the men and women of the West Virginia National Guard, to our governor, to our [elected officials] who all came together to say we want to be a broader part of the nation's defense and take on an even greater role with the establishment of this partnership with Qatar," said Army Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, the adjutant general of the West Virginia Guard.
This year also marked the 100th Anniversary of the end of World War I, a war that saw more than 103,000 Guard members killed or wounded.
"We remember the battles that raged here in the fields, the forests, and the towns," said Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau, during a ceremony marking the occasion. "We also remember the sacrifice made in the cause of freedom -- because the United States honors her war dead."
The National Guard comprised 18 of the 43 Army divisions the United States sent to France in World War I.
While some reflected on the Guard's part in the First World War, others looked to new roles the Guard took on in 2018. The headquarters of the 54th Security Forces Assistance Brigade was activated this year as part of the Indiana Army National Guard. One of six such brigades throughout the total Army, the SFABs focus on training, advising and assisting forces of partner and allied nations.
"When deployed, SFAB Soldiers will be the day-to-day experts combatant commanders need to train, advise and assist [allied and partner security forces]," said Army Maj. Gen. Courtney P. Carr, the adjutant general of the Indiana National Guard.
Training and preparation were among the key elements at play in early December when the District of Columbia National Guard took part in the state funeral of former President George H.W. Bush, who died in Houston on Nov. 30 at age 94.
"The goal is to make it look like it was easy," said Army Maj. Mark Ballantyne, operations officer and mission planner with the D.C. Guard's Multi-agency Augmentation Command. "Because then, that means we did our job right."
Guard members remained busy elsewhere as the year drew to a close. A week before the new year, New York Air National Guard members took part in an integral mission that's been ongoing for more than 60 years -- tracking Santa's path on Christmas Eve.
Airmen with the Eastern Air Defense Sector, part of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, assisted NORAD with the annual tracking mission -- which dates back to 1955 and an incorrect phone number in a department store ad. The ad directed children to check on Santa's whereabouts and progress by calling the number. But, the misprinted number meant those who dialed it were calling not the department store, but the operations center of the Continental Air Defense Command, NORAD's predecessor organization.
"NORAD has supported Santa Claus' Christmas Eve operations for 60 years and we are always delighted to help," said Air Force Col. Emil J. Filkorn, commander of the Eastern Air Defense Sector. "I can assure everyone that EADS will do everything in its power to assist Santa with his critical mission."
And as Santa made his rounds, Guard members looked to the coming year and the challenges and missions that may come.
"We are an integral part of the Joint Force in ensuring the National Defense Strategy is efficiently executed," said Lengyel. "We are indisputably an operational force."