CONTACT: Maj. Joe Trovato | [email protected] | 608-242-3048

by Vaughn R. Larson

“Yesterday, the last of our service members in Afghanistan started their journey home. Our National Guard support to the military mission in Afghanistan is now complete. The past two decades have not been an easy chapter in our nation’s history, nor has it been without setbacks and sacrifices …

“We are forever grateful to the men and women who served in Afghanistan, and the families who supported them. We will continue to proudly wear the cloth of our nation, and remember the heroism and sacrifices made by so many, including our Gold Star families.

“More than a generation of Americans fought so our nation would not live in fear. We fought to bring hope and freedom to the people of Afghanistan. We fought to uphold our nation’s values and our American way of life. We did not choose these battles, but we fought them all the same. And we never lost sight of our duty as Citizen Soldiers and Airmen.” — Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson, National Guard Bureau chief, Aug. 31, 2021.

With the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s Volk Field having served in the closing chapter of the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan as a transit center for aircraft bringing Afghan evacuees to Fort McCoy, it’s worth looking back at the Wisconsin National Guard’s involvement in the nation’s longest war.

Sept. 11, 2001

It didn’t take long for the Wisconsin National Guard to get involved in what would become the Global War on Terror, after the terrorist organization Al Qaeda flew commercial airliners into the World Trade Center twin towers and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, as well as crashing another airliner near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The Taliban allowed Al Qaeda to operate out of Afghanistan.

“The day of Sept. 11 we were contacted by 1st Air Force and asked to get some aircraft and air crews on alert,” said retired Brig. Gen. Gary Ebben, who was vice-commander of the Madison-based 115th Fighter Wing at the time. “The unit hadn’t pulled alert since the early ‘70s in the F-102. By that evening, aircraft were being loaded with munitions that had been transported from Volk Field. Standing on the flight line that evening was strangely eerie with the skies quiet, but essentially combat operations underway as nobody knew the extent of what might happen.”

Ebben said the fighter wing had contingency plans for arming aircraft with combat munitions, but in the context of entering a foreign theater of operations.

“I don’t think anyone ever envisioned being used in the defense of the homeland,” Ebben said.

Volunteers from the Milwaukee-based 128th Air Refueling Wing performed three federal missions as early as Sept. 12, 2001, refueling fighter jets on patrol in support of what would become Operation Noble Eagle. By Sept. 20, additional volunteers deployed to Moron Air Base in Spain and other locations, as part of expeditionary combat support.

Oct. 7, 2001: US begins operations in Afghanistan

In October, 12 members of the Richland Center-based 829th Engineer Detachment would deploy to Afghanistan, where Operation Enduring Freedom had already begun. They would improve and maintain facilities, mostly at Kandahar, Afghanistan, for U.S. forces there.

Dec. 21, 2001: Interim Afghan government is sworn in

April 17, 2002: President George W. Bush announces plan to rebuild Afghanistan

Two Wisconsin National Guard units — the Monroe-based 64th Rear Operations Center and the Oshkosh-based 1157th Transportation Company — mobilized in September 2002 for missions at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, though portions of each unit would also head over to Afghanistan during their deployment. In December, 28 members of the Berlin-based 332nd Rear Area Operations Center mobilized for a deployment to Bagram, Afghanistan where they managed security and logistical issues for rear-area bases.

May 1, 2003: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declares an end to major combat in Afghanistan and a shift to stability and reconstruction efforts

At this point, while more Wisconsin National Guard units were mobilizing to support Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Wisconsin National Guard continued its work in Afghanistan.

In June 2004, 11 Wisconsin Army National Guard members assigned to Joint Force Headquarters mobilized as part of a Central Corps Assistance Group. Combined with nine Virginia Army National Guard Soldiers, the CCAG would mentor the Afghanistan National Army’s Central Corps staff in military tactics, procedures and operations. Col. Todd Nehls of the Wisconsin National Guard — who also served as the Dodge County sheriff — would command the CCAG, which fell under Coalition Joint Task Force Phoenix, itself a training and assistance task force comprised of more than 1,500 Army National Guard members from across the United States.

“ETT Task Force Phoenix at the time was not a doctrinal unit or mission,” said Maj. Andy Schouten, who deployed individually in 2006 to support Task Force Phoenix, and wrote a book about the experience, “First to Fire.” “The mission was to advise the [Afghan National Army] in leadership, staff support functions, planning, assessing, supporting, and executing operations and training.”

2006-08: As the U.S. focuses on the troop surge in Iraq, the Taliban launch attacks seeking to recapture territory, largely in the south

In January 2006, a second detachment of 16 Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldiers, this time largely from the 57th Field Artillery Brigade, were mobilized for service in Afghanistan as part of Coalition Task Force Phoenix — again, an element composed of Soldiers from multiple National Guard organizations. The Wisconsin contingent, led by Col. Dominic Cariello, would train and advise a brigade-sized element of the Afghan National Army.

The following month, 30 Soldiers in the Madison-based 232nd Military Intelligence Company deployed to Afghanistan, serving as an element of the 10th Mountain Division. The majority of the company was stationed at Bagram Air Base, but some Soldiers were placed at forward operating bases in Kandahar and Salerno. As part of their mission of intelligence collection, analysis and dissemination, the 232nd worked with U.S. and coalition military forces, the Afghan government and U.S. government civilian agencies.

In May 2008, another detachment of 17 Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldiers, mostly from the 157th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, mobilized for service in Afghanistan as part of Coalition Task Force Phoenix. Lt. Col. John Passet commanded the task force, assigned to train and advise a battalion-sized element of the Afghan National Army.

In November of that year, the 951st Sapper Company mobilized for a route clearance mission in an approximately 6,000-square-mile area of responsibility in Afghanistan. The company’s higher command in Afghanistan acknowledged that the 951st performed the most dangerous and difficult missions of any element assigned to Task Force Pirate. On Oct. 2, 2009 Sgt. Ryan Adams of Rhinelander died in Logar Province from wounds suffered when his patrol was attacked by enemy forces. Seven other company members were injured in the attack. Adams would be the first Wisconsin National Guard member to be killed in action in Afghanistan, and to date is the last Wisconsin National Guard fatality in the Global War on Terror.

“He was the model for the [non-commissioned officer],” Capt. Brian Barth, 951st Sapper commander, said days after Adams was killed. “He challenged people, regardless of rank, to perform their best. Sgt. Adams was a great individual.”

Seventeen Soldiers in the 951st received the Purple Heart medal for combat injuries, and the company received the Valorous Unit Award, the second-highest Army unit decoration.

Feb. 17, 2009: President Barack Obama announces plans to send 17,000 troops to Afghanistan to stabilize the country

A 16-person embedded training team, led by Col. Timothy Lawson and mostly consisting of Soldiers from Wisconsin’s Joint Force Headquarters, was the fourth to deploy as part of Coalition Task Force Phoenix. This team, which mobilized in March 2009, advised the Afghanistan National Police in Harat in the western part of the country bordering Iran on leadership responsibilities, non-commissioned officer duties and logistics. They were on hand for the presidential elections in August of that year.

“I was biting my nails up to election day,” Lawson admitted. To ensure an “Afghan face” was present for the elections, Lawson’s troops remained in their compounds while the Afghan National Police, Border Police and the Afghan National Army provided security.

Despite reports indicating otherwise, the election saw higher turnout and less violence than expected.

“At the end of the day, it was a victory,” Lawson said.

2010: In the spring and summer, the U.S. troop surge peaks with 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, 20,000 deployed to the south 

Six Soldiers from the Volk Field-based Tactical Unmanned Aerial System (TAUS) platoon of the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team’s Company B, Brigade Special Troops Battalion, mobilized in June 2011 for a deployment to support U.S. Marines in Afghanistan. They would pilot the RQ-7 Shadow 200 unmanned aerial vehicle, which captures imagery.

May 1, 2011: Osama bin Laden killed in Pakistan

June 22, 2011: President Obama announces the beginning of U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Preliminary negotiations with the Taliban begin

In July 2011, four Wisconsin Army National Guard female Soldiers — 1st Lt. April Nelson, Master Sgt. Karen Dumke, Sgt. Kristen Elegeert and Sgt. Sonia Buchanan — successfully completed the first Cultural Support Training Course at Fort Bragg. They would be assigned to Special Forces teams in Afghanistan and would interact with local women and children on behalf of their team.

Nelson said that being a woman in uniform made the villagers suspicious, but providing medicine and medical care quickly won them over.

“At first when we were there the men didn’t understand that we were Soldiers and that our team was trying to communicate with them,” Buchanan said. “They thought we were concubines. We’re more of a third-gender type — they don’t really understand how to classify us. We’re not like their women, but we’re not a male Soldier. We’re this third entity — a female Soldier — which is a new concept to them.”

In April 2012 the Wisconsin National Guard sent its first agribusiness development team — a collection of Soldiers and Airmen with professional training or experience in various aspects of farming — to Afghanistan. The concept originated with the Missouri National Guard and leveraged the civilian skill sets of National Guard members to revitalize an industry in Afghanistan that still had not fully recovered from the Soviet occupation decades earlier.

The 82nd ADT was remissioned in May, with the agribusiness specialists becoming part of the Provincial Reconstruction Team Kunar and the remainder taking on security or quick-reaction force missions in Kabul. Thirty-five ADT members returned to Wisconsin in September, while the remaining 13 continued to help build Kunar Province’s agricultural infrastructure.

The 82nd ADT fostered a partnership between the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and Said Jamaluddin Afghani University, established an artificial insemination center for livestock, and worked to increase saffron production while slowing the region’s poppy production. The unit conducted more than 200 combat patrols and made more than 500 engagements with key local leaders in 13 of Kunar’s 15 districts. They also supported more than 40 medical evacuations on their forward operating base, and managed more than $12 million in construction projects.

The Oshkosh-based 1157th Transportation Company arrived in Afghanistan in April 2012 to perform a convoy escort mission. The company had originally received orders for a mission in Kuwait. The company logged more than 1.8 million miles conducting 128 escort missions on some of the most dangerous roads in northern, eastern and central Afghanistan. Soldiers in the unit earned 40 combat action badges and received five Purple Heart medals.

The 229th Engineer Company and 106th Engineer Company mobilized in August 2012 for a deployment to Afghanistan, where the units would improve combat mobility in Kandahar Province. The 229th worked with a task force from the 2nd Infantry Division’s 4th Stryker Combat Brigade Team as well as Afghan National Security Forces to pave a new route through the Taliban center of mass in the Panjwa’i district. The 3.8-kilometer road made it possible for coalition mounted vehicles to more easily reach areas where the Taliban had found safe haven.

“It allowed [the 2nd Division] to get in there and kick the Taliban out,” said Staff Sgt. Eric Klar, a squad leader operating bulldozers on new road construction projects in Afghanistan. “It was very rewarding to help the infantry get in there with their vehicles rather than having to walk all the time.”

The company built seven roads and improved roads, helicopter pads and other paved surfaces, found and cleared 41 improvised explosive devices, expanded forward operating bases and combat outposts, and helped build persistent surveillance balloon systems during their nine-month deployment.

In October 2012 the Wisconsin National Guard mobilized, on short notice, 16 Soldiers to form the 104th Security Force Advise and Assist Team, whose mission would be to mentor Afghan Border Police. At this time, coalition forces planned to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014.

“This is the next step in the transition of our mission,” said Lt. Col. David Larson, 104th SFAAT commander. “It’s a step in the right direction, turning the fight over to the Afghans, while advising and assisting in their transition. Even though we’re a small unit, what we do will go a long way toward achieving national objectives in turning over our mission to Afghan forces.”

2013: The U.S. begins closing forward operating bases in Afghanistan

Arriving in Afghanistan in early 2013, the 104th SFAAT operated from a remote outpost within an Afghan border police base, advising and assisting regional border police to improve their capability for self-sustained operations to control and secure the region. The team also helped start two 12-room schools, a deep water well, and distributed school supplies — including 175 desks — to schools in remote border villages.

“Our relationship with our Afghan counterparts is excellent,” Larson said. “They are like brothers, and we are teaching them a lot of important processes and concepts that will help them stand on their own feet after coalition forces depart Afghanistan in 2014.”

Maj. Michael Hanson, the team’s executive officer, said the commanding general of all coalition forces in Afghanistan described the 104th as the best SFAAT operating in the country.

“I told [our Afghan partners], ‘the future of your organization is very bright,’” Hanson said at the unit’s return ceremony Sept. 28. “’You have some very good young leaders here that we were working with and mentoring.’”

In early 2013, Plymouth-based Battery B, 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery became the first Army National Guard unit to provide a fire support mission in Afghanistan. The High Mobility Artillery Rocket System battery supported a joint special operations task force.

“We had to be very good at our job supporting the task force,” said Sgt. 1st Class John Lemke, a platoon sergeant with Battery B who deployed with the battery once to Iraq for a non-artillery mission, and twice to Afghanistan for HIMARS missions. “This meant rehearsals all the time and being extremely quick at what we did. When you’re working with guys who expect zero-fail missions, you don’t fail.”

Battery B would earn the 2013 Alexander Hamilton Award, which recognizes the year’s outstanding National Guard field artillery battery for superb mission accomplishment and overall unit excellence.

The 97th Agribusiness Development Team mobilized in January 2013 to replace the 82nd ADT as part of the Kunar Provincial Reconstruction Team.

“When you think of agriculture, we think of one of the important things for a good harvest is having deep, thick roots,” Gov. Scott Walker said at the unit’s Jan. 3 sendoff ceremony. “Certainly from an agricultural standpoint in Afghanistan, you’ll be helping people understand that, but in a very real sense, those roots aren’t just about growing things — they’re about growing a nation.”

Despite training to increase Kunar Province’s agricultural productivity, improve farmer access to key services, link farmers with markets and trade corridors, rehabilitate watersheds and improve irrigation, much of the 11-member team was integrated into staff duty positions within the Kunar Provincial Reconstruction Team. They continued the work of the 82nd ADT in facilitating agricultural improvements in the province, but their efforts ultimately focused on closing the provincial reconstruction team’s operations in Kunar. The 97th ADT returned to Wisconsin in May.

June 2013: Afghan forces take the lead in providing security across the nation

Detachment 52 Operational Support Airlift Command, a Madison-based seven-person unit — including six warrant officer pilots — deployed to Afghanistan in 2014 to fly a C26 two-engine airplane. Missions included ferrying critical personnel throughout Afghanistan and the surrounding region. The unit tallied 950 flying hours while performing more than 260 distinguished visitor operations missions, carrying NATO dignitaries from more than 14 different nations to destinations in Afghanistan and surrounding countries.

“Our guys didn’t make the headlines,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Arthur Hebblewhite, Detachment 52 commander for the deployment. “It was the people they flew that made the headlines.”

Hebblewhite noted that the C-26 was not built to operate in Afghanistan’s austere climate.

“We were always flying the aircraft at the very edge of its limits,” he said. “The guys did an awesome job doing that.”

May 27, 2014: President Obama announces withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan

The Wisconsin National Guard sent two company-sized units to Afghanistan in May 2014. The 829th Engineer Company deployed to take down structures on forward operating bases in Afghanistan as part of the responsible drawdown of U.S. forces there. In doing so, the engineers reclaimed material to save taxpayer money and also prevent that material from being acquired by enemy forces in Afghanistan. The company disassembled three forward operating bases, and reduced the U.S. footprint at another base as well as Bagram Airfield, turning in more than $18 million worth of military equipment before returning to Wisconsin in December.

“Our job was actually to make things smaller and to get people out,” said Capt. Kyle Gruber, company commander. “It was a lot of work — we had to make up a lot of things as we went. It’s not necessarily something the Army does every day.”

The second unit was Battery A, 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery, who would become just the third National Guard HIMARS battery to provide 24-hour fire support in Afghanistan. Roughly half the unit returned to Wisconsin in December. The rest of Battery A returned to Wisconsin in February 2015, having supported more than 200 combat missions covering nearly half of Afghanistan.

The Superior-based 950th Engineer Company mobilized in October 2014 for a route-clearance deployment to Afghanistan. Early into their deployment, 50 Soldiers were given a new assignment — providing security for Train, Advise, Assist Command-Air, a U.S. Air Force effort to train the Afghan Air Force in Kandahar, as well as force protection for a forward operating base, contractors and the Air Force in Kabul.

December 2014: NATO ends its 13-year combat mission in Afghanistan, but maintains a troop presence for training Afghan military

“Providing security for these individuals so they can continue the mission and wrap up the war in Afghanistan is a vital task,” Capt. Andrew Redd, 950th commander, said during the company’s Sept. 5, 2015 welcome home ceremony. “And we were the only ones there to do it in our roles. Providing security can never lapse — you can never sleep, you can’t rest. We had no easy days in Afghanistan.”

The 950th completed 110 route clearance missions and helped confirm and destroy one of the largest weapons caches ever discovered in Parwan Province.

2015: The Taliban see their biggest military gains since 2001, and the Islamic State becomes active in the region

The Milwaukee-based 128th Air Refueling Wing began deploying five KC-135 refuelers and more than 140 personnel, beginning Sept. 29, 2015 to support Operation Inherent Resolve and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.

“Our nation is relying on the Air National Guard, and the tanker community in particular, more than at any time in our history,” said Col. Dan Yenchesky, 128th Air Refueling Wing commander. “And our Air National Guard continues to deliver.”

The Wisconsin National Guard unveiled a Sept. 11 monument at its Joint Force Headquarters in Madison on Oct. 3, 2015. The monument consists of twisted steel from the wreckage of the World Trade Center twin towers in New York City, a slab of shattered limestone from the Pentagon, and a piece of black granite from Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed.

“I felt surprise, shock, anger,” recalled retired Maj. Gen. Al Wilkening, Wisconsin’s deputy adjutant general on Sept. 11, 2001, who led the Wisconsin National Guard’s immediate response. “But at the end of the day it was all pride, because those of you in uniform did what needed to be done. Your actions communicated to our communities, our citizens, to the world, that we were ready to do whatever it took to protect our citizens in the future.”

The West Bend-based Company C, 1st Battalion, 168th Aviation mobilized in February 2017 to deploy to Afghanistan for a medevac mission.

“Just like firemen, we are on call 24/7, so we live in our medevac building,” Capt. Robert Danforth, company commander, explained during the deployment. “But what is different from a regular fireman is that our deployed ‘home’ is also where we work.”

Company C flew 41 medevac missions involving 57 patients and three Afghan fatalities, as well as 31 expeditionary advising package support missions before returning to Wisconsin Nov. 8. 

January 2018: The Taliban escalate attacks as U.S. troops deploy across rural Afghanistan in an advisory role

Detachment 5, Operational Support Airlift Command departed from Madison for Afghanistan March 9, 2018. Their mission was to transport critical personnel throughout Afghanistan and the surrounding region in a C-26 airplane. The three-person unit logged nearly 1,500 flight hours and carried more than 2,400 passengers and 128,000 pounds of cargo before returning to Wisconsin in August.

In September 2018, the 1st Battalion, 121st Field Artillery, along with the 108th Forward Support Company, deployed for nine months to support three concurrent military operations — Inherent Resolve, Spartan Shield and Freedom’s Sentinel — across 15 locations in six countries. The battalion fired approximately 400 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System precision munitions in the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan as well as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

“You helped decimate ISIS and facilitate their withdrawal from Syria,” said battalion commander Lt. Col. Paul Gapinski. “You helped push back the Taliban. You helped protect our various strategic resources and deter aggression in the region and continue to build on our culture of interoperability.”

In April 2019 the 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry became the first 32nd “Red Arrow” Brigade unit to deploy to Afghanistan, as well as the first National Guard battalion to partner with an Army security force assistance brigade. The 127th’s role was to serve as “Guardian Angels” — to provide force protection for countless engagements between Army advisors and other coalition forces, contractors and Afghan troops. The guardian angel mission aimed to reduce insider threats by being with the Army advisors as they conducted their training. The Soldiers of the 127th monitored body language and posture among those involved in the training event to detect if a threat was imminent.

During the deployment, the 127th sent Guardian Angel teams to 14 locations across eight provinces in Afghanistan, while also gaining quick-reaction force and base defense operations center duties. Their sister battalion — the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry — took over the Guardian Angel mission in November 2019.

In July 2019, the 115th Fighter Wing’s 176th Fighter Squadron and the active-duty 378th Fighter Squadron assigned to Truax Field deployed to Bagram Airfield and, according to Brig. Gen. Michael E. Martin — deputy commanding general for NATO Special Operations Component Command and Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan — was directly responsible for changing the tide of the war in the Train Assist Advise Command-North region of Afghanistan.

“We were getting direct feedback that we were stopping Afghan National Army command outposts from getting overrun by Taliban,” said Lt. Col. Benjamin Gerds, 176th Fighter Squadron commander. “We really felt like we made a huge difference over there.”

The 829th Engineer Company mobilized for deployment in October 2019, improving facilities for coalition forces and completing other essential construction projects in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Among those projects, the unit helped to build a COVID-19 hospital in Afghanistan before returning to Wisconsin in September 2020.

Feb. 29, 2020: President Donald Trump signs an agreement with the Taliban in Doha calling for all foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021

Approximately 150 of the 400 Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry returned to Wisconsin in April 2020, an early return from their “Guardian Angel” deployment to Afghanistan, as part of a planned troop drawdown. In June another 40 Soldiers returned to Wisconsin. The remainder of the battalion also took on a base defense mission before it returned to Wisconsin in August.

May 1, 2021: The U.S. and NATO begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan

July 2, 2021: The U.S. departs Bagram Air Base

Aug. 15, 2021: Kabul falls to the Taliban. Efforts to evacuate U.S. personnel and Afghans seeking asylum begin

Volk Field serves as a transit hub for Afghan refugees who will be housed at nearby Fort McCoy.

Aug. 31, 2021: The last U.S. troops leave Afghanistan.

 “To the Soldiers, Airmen and families of the National Guard:

 “For nearly 20 years we have served and sacrificed in Afghanistan. As the combat reserve of the Army and Air Force, our presence was significant. Answering our nation’s call, we left behind families, civilian jobs and communities. We performed and served with honor, and never lost sight of our duty as Citizen-Soldiers and Airmen. For all who served or supported us in Afghanistan — we thank you.” — Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson, National Guard Bureau chief, Aug. 18, 2021.

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