By this date in 1990, nearly 220 Wisconsin Army National Guard members had deployed to Saudi Arabia in support of Operation Desert Shield, while as many as 70 Airmen from the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 128th Air Refueling Wing had been refueling aircraft at home and overseas on a volunteer, rotational basis since early August.
Desert Shield was the U.S.-led response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. It was also the first time that the National Guard was called to federal service since the Defense Department adopted the Total Force Concept in the early 1970s — and the first Wisconsin Army National Guard federal mobilizations since the 1961 Berlin Crisis.
“The fact that we were mobilized in large numbers and performed effectively as part of the Army helped to change the perception of the Guard from the Vietnam era,” said Lt. Col. Jeff Larrabee, chief of historical services with the National Guard Bureau, in a 2016 article.
In August 1990, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units flew 42 percent of the strategic airlift missions for the initial response to the Kuwait invasion, and one third of the air refueling missions.
“Desert [Shield and] Storm not only validated the Air National Guard’s relevance as a member of the total force, it validated this entire Total Force policy where the training and the equipment of all the organizations was supposed to be on par,” David Anderson, director and chief historian with the Air National Guard History Office, said in a 2016 article. “Desert Storm was the first time we demonstrated the Air Force’s ability to send all three components into combat.”
The Pentagon began calling reserve component units to active duty on Aug. 24, 1990. By Nov. 14, 235 units from the Army National Guard and Army Reserve had been ordered to active duty.
Norm Johnson, a retired lieutenant colonel, commanded the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 132nd Military History Detachment. He acknowledged that the active Army had questions about the National Guard as Desert Storm began. The Wisconsin Army National Guard had taken part in numerous Return of Forces to Germany (REFORGER) Cold War exercises, from detachments up to the entire 32nd Infantry Brigade, with VII Corps.
“We knew VII Corps, and they knew us,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if we had an amiable relationship, but we knew each other.”
However, the Cold War was over by 1990, and the Iraqi military was at that time one of the largest in the world, considered to be battle-hardened following a nearly decade-long war with neighboring Iran.
Johnson said relationships the 132nd Military History Detachment developed with history officials at the Pentagon and the National Guard Bureau, along with recent desert training at the National Training Center, helped the unit get mobilized.
“We can be extremely proud of the way our people responded to this mobilization,” Maj. Gen. Jerald Slack, Wisconsin’s adjutant general during Desert Shield, said at the time. “They have been ready when they were needed.”
Among those people was Kathy Halloran, who was just the second state volunteer for the Wisconsin National Guard Family Program. Selected only a few months earlier, Halloran said the program was still formalizing training for unit volunteers around the state when the callups began.
“Presentations and programs needed to be developed to meet the changing needs of the military, families and the family assistance centers we worked with,” Halloran recalled. “Visits to the hangar at Volk Field for deployments brought on a flurry of emotions — pride, fear and sadness, but always the wish to stay strong for the people that I was serving, knowing that the load they carried was a much larger burden than mine.”
The 107th Maintenance Company, with more than 200 Soldiers in Sparta and Viroqua, Wisconsin, was among the first wave of reserve units alerted Aug. 24 and called to active duty one month later.
“I had a choice — I volunteered to join the Guard, and I knew there was always a chance I would have to go on active duty,” said Sgt. Daniel Rickless of the 107th Maintenance Company in the Summer/Fall 1990 issue of At Ease, the Wisconsin National Guard’s official publication. “So I’m ready to go wherever our unit is needed.”
The four-person 1122nd Transportation Detachment, based in Madison, was also called to active duty, and deployed to Saudi Arabia Oct. 1. The 107th left Wisconsin Nov. 8. 1st Lt. Leslie Achterberg relayed some of the 1122nd Transportation Detachment’s early experiences in an Oct. 20, 1990 letter to At Ease.
“This place is not too bad, now that we’ve been here for eight days,” Achterberg wrote. “The temperature is falling a little now. It has only been getting up to 100 degrees during the day, but down to 75 at night. Not too bad considering the day we arrived it was 120 degrees.”
Achterberg described life in the desert as sitting inside an oven set on high, while sifting flour in front of a fan, in a swarm of thousands of flies.
By the end of November, three more Wisconsin Army National Guard units were alerted — the Monroe-based 1158th Transportation Company, the 390-member 13th Evacuation Hospital of Madison, Marshfield and Chippewa Falls, and the three-man 132nd Military History Detachment based in Madison. The 1158th was called to active duty Nov. 20, followed by the 13th Evac on Nov. 26. The 132nd did not report for active duty until Dec. 6, but deployed to Saudi Arabia on Christmas Day. The 1158th deployed Jan. 6, 1991 followed by the 13th Evac on Jan. 9.
Up to 300 Airmen from the 128th Air Refueling Wing were activated Dec. 20, 1990, along with 12 other Air National Guard K-135 tanker units, and deployed to Cairo, Egypt a week later to support the 1706th Provisional Air Refueling Wing. Other 128th Airmen mobilized to backfill positions across the U.S. or overseas.
The 1157th Transportation Company, based in Oshkosh and Berlin, and the 229th Engineer Company, based in Platteville and Prairie du Chien, were alerted Dec. 1 and reported to active duty Dec. 10. The 1157th deployed Jan. 8, and the 229th followed Jan. 19, after Desert Shield had become Desert Storm. The Milwaukee-based 32nd Military Police Company was alerted Dec. 3, reported for active duty Jan. 6 and deployed Feb. 6.
In total, approximately 1,400 Wisconsin National Guard members, representing nine units and 11 communities, were mobilized for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
Stephen Duncan, assistant secretary of defense for Reserve Affairs in 1991, said in a post-war report that the reserve components proved their worth.
“The responsiveness to Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm by American reserve forces and their performance, in what has been described as ‘the largest, fastest mobilization since World War II,’ was remarkably successful by any standard,” Duncan wrote.
“Desert Storm changed the Army’s thinking and focus on how they were going to use the Guard and Reserve in the future,” Larrabee said. “The Guard’s performance during Desert Storm ensured that the Guard was going to be part of the answer.”
Just 10 years later, after terrorists hijacked planes and attacked New York City and Washington D.C. on Sept. 11, 2001, the nation would once again call on the National Guard. In the ensuing years, tens of thousands of National Guard troops would join their counterparts from the other service components and become veterans of the Global War on Terror.
In Wisconsin alone, more than 25,000 Citizen Soldiers and Airmen and nearly every unit in the Wisconsin National Guard would mobilize after the attacks of Sept. 11, most on multiple occasions.
Not since the days of World War II, had the military relied so heavily on the National Guard to fulfill its missions overseas.
That high operations tempo continued in 2020. Since Veterans Day 2019, more than 1,200 Wisconsin National Guard troops either deployed or returned from overseas deployments to places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, and the Horn of Africa.
Thousands more simultaneously mobilized here at home in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, civil unrest in Wisconsin’s cities, and to support multiple elections as poll workers amidst a shortage of poll workers.