MADISON, Wis. – Following an unprecedented year of supporting statewide COVID-19 efforts, election support missions, and civil disturbance operations, Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldiers returned to a sense of normalcy this summer.
Wisconsin units conducted annual training missions in six states and Canada to maintain readiness, hone basic Soldier skills and support communities inside and outside the military.
Whitewater's 457th Chemical Company was a key unit in the state's COVID-19 response in 2020. This year, the unit trained at Camp Roberts, California, on its core mission of supporting Army operations in a chemical, biological or radiological environment.
"Over the last year, I have witnessed an incredible amount of dedication and willingness to serve displayed by my Soldiers who are truly committed to the craft of their military specialties," said Capt. Jordan Schultz, the 457th Chemical Company commander. "I want to credit them for all their hard work and good attitudes throughout the last year."
The 457th is part of the Wisconsin National Guard's Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear Enhanced Response Force Package (CERF-P), a highly trained and specialized joint unit.
"My unit as part of the CERF-P can respond within a few hours within the state in the event of a chemical or biological attack," Schultz said. "While we performed some of our skillset last year during COVID, this year's annual training allowed us to train on other aspects of our mission and continue to be ready to execute both our state and federal missions."
While there are concrete objectives to every annual training, there are also less tangible benefits like the relationships that are built with people and other organizations.
Soldiers with the 32nd "Red Arrow" Infantry Brigade Combat Team based in Camp Douglas participated in a warfighter exercise (WFX) in early June at Camp Atterbury, Indiana. A warfighter is an exercise that challenges headquarters elements with complex staff planning and coordination scenarios.
"Learning to collaborate is a huge part of this exercise, not only amongst ourselves but with the other brigades," said Command Sgt. Major John Dietzler II, the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team's senior enlisted leader. "The process allows opportunities for staff to be developed, especially when it comes to tactics, especially for people who are in new roles within the brigade."
In late June, members of the Oak Creek-based 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery, drove 10 hours to Minnesota's Camp Ripley to sharpen rocket artillery skills after supporting multiple civil disturbance response operations in 2020 and early 2021.
The "Dark Skies" battalion fields the high-mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS), which can be fired only at a limited number of training areas such as Camp Ripley. Many of the unit's newer Soldiers had not conducted a live-fire with the 121st Field Artillery.
"This was my first time shooting live rockets," said Sgt. Macy Brogan, a HIMARS gunner with Battery B in Two Rivers. "It was unique and an awesome experience."
Annual training in 2021 also offered numerous opportunities for Soldiers to serve communities.
In June, approximately 100 Soldiers with the 229th Engineer Company from Prairie du Chien and Richland Center convoyed from Wisconsin to Crystal Springs, Mississippi, where they used their construction skills to help build Camp Kamassa, a 326-acre camp for children and adults with special needs.
"We got time on the equipment we haven't used much before," said Staff Sgt. Dayna Baldwin, a horizontal construction engineer. "There were opportunities to work with other service branches, which is out of the ordinary for most of our training experiences."
Military involvement in construction projects like Camp Kamassa is possible through the Department of Defense's Innovative Readiness Training program. IRT missions make a difference for communities in the United States and its territories while simultaneously offering joint training for all components of the U.S. military.
"This was a large-scale project, and I had the opportunity to work side-by-side with vertical engineers who do structural engineering tasks," Baldwin said. Horizontal engineers specialize in earth moving.
The mission touched Baldwin personally and connected with her civilian career.
"I'm a first-grade school teacher and I work with children with disabilities on a daily basis, so being able to work on this project is meaningful," Baldwin said. "It feels great to give back to this community and these kids who could use a camp like this."
Another engineer unit contributed to a construction project in Wisconsin.
About a dozen Soldiers with Superior's 950th Engineer Company worked on a construction project at Fort McCoy.
"The project the platoon worked on is improvements to Tactical Training Base Liberty and the cantonment area fence," said Larry Morrow, troop projects coordinator with the Fort McCoy Directorate of Public Works. "The site plan is to make it into a base operations support site for installation service contractors, such as facility maintenance, roads and grounds, solid waste, custodial, pest management, and more."
The completed project required heavy engineering work and will contribute to Fort McCoy's ability to maintain a modern and functional base that supports training for multiple Active Duty, Reserve and National Guard units.
"Larry set us up on this project, and we are continuing to move the organic material from the site," said 2nd Lt. Nick Bures, a platoon leader in the 950th Engineer Company. "We arrived July 9 and started pushing dirt July 10."
Not only were Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldiers willing to push dirt, construct buildings, travel long distances and tackle unfamiliar situations, but they were willing to navigate the additional obstacles created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Oshkosh's 1157th Transportation Company could not conduct in-person drill until February due to COVID-19, leaving only six months to fulfill in-person annual training prerequisites like driver training, said 1st Lt. Jay Hale, an administrative officer with the company.
"We sent about 70 Soldiers to Fort Polk, Louisiana, for a month in late May to conduct troop transportation training," said Hale. "For our craft, this event is basically the Super Bowl of training where all the elements come together."
Militaries around the world faced similar obstacles, including Canada's military, which coordinated a multinational exercise including 30 Soldiers from Madison's 1st Battalion, 147th Aviation. These Soldiers joined with 2,500 Canadian Armed Forces personnel and 150 British soldiers for the Maple Resolve 2021 exercise May 1-11 in Wainwright, Alberta.
This annual training exercise supported each military's readiness and the ability of each nation's military to operate jointly with its allies. While there are always communication and logistics obstacles in these exercises, COVID-19 constraints added additional complications.
The unit sent three helicopters and crews to participate in medical evacuation training and to provide real-world utility support and medical evacuation to the exercise.