2013: Busy Year for National Guard

By Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy

From responding to natural disasters and events like the Boston Marathon bombing to continued deployments overseas to Afghanistan, Kuwait, Kosovo and other locations, 2013 has been a busy year for members of the National Guard.

The start of the year saw more than 6,000 Guard members from 32 states and territories provide support to the 57th presidential Inauguration. The event in January saw Guard members performing a variety of roles including traffic control, crowd management and communications, logistical and medical support. Additionally, a small contingent of those troops marched in the inaugural parade, something that members of the District of Columbia National Guard have done in every inaugural parade since the 1861 inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln.

While Guard troops were gearing up for inauguration duties, President Barack Obama signed into law a bill that designated Salem, Mass., as the birthplace of the Guard. The Guard traces its history to Dec. 13, 1636, when the legislature of the Massachusetts Bay Colony organized the North, South and East Regiments. The first muster of those troops took place on Salem Common, though the actual date has been lost to history.

January also saw leadership changes within the Air National Guard as Lt. Gen. Harry "Bud" Wyatt, then-director of the Air Guard, retired after 40 years of service in a ceremony at Joint Base Andrews, Md. Wyatt, a command pilot with more than 3,000 flying hours in a variety of aircraft including the A-7 Corsair II, the F-106 Delta Dart and the F-16 Fighting Falcon, turned over the reins to Lt. Gen. Stanley "Sid" Clarke III.

The Air Guard also welcomed a new command chief of the Air Guard when Chief Master Sgt. James Hotaling took over that position from Chief Master Sgt. Christopher Muncy, who retired.

Guard members met several other milestones in 2013. Members of the District of Columbia Air Guard's 113th Wing responded to their 4,000th alert event as part of their mission of intercepting airborne threats to the nation's capital.

"We've had (more than) 500 events each year for the past two years," said Lt. Col. Christopher Hardgrave, who was one of the members who responded to the 4,000th alert. "(That averages) almost one-and-a-half per day where the [alert] horn goes off in the national capital region as part of the alert forces."

Meanwhile, airmen at the Alaska Air Guard's Alaska Rescue Coordination Center (11th Air Force) completed their 5,000th mission since July 1994 when they coordinated the rescue of a pilot who crashed near the Bering River in Cordova, Alaska. The center coordinated multiple rescues with the Alaska Air Guard's 210th, 211th and 212th Rescue Squadrons throughout the state in 2013, including the rescue of a snow researcher who fell 80 feet into a crevasse on a glacier.

Similarly, members of the California Air National Guard's 129th Rescue Wing saved their 1,000 life May 18. While deployed to Afghanistan, they rescued an Afghan National Police officer who suffered a gunshot wound. The wing has been credited with more than 400 combat saves and 600 civilian saves.

On April 15, many Massachusetts National Guard members were on duty at the Boston Marathon assisting with security and other tasks when two bombs were detonated near the finish line. Once the bombs detonated, members of the Massachusetts Army Guard's 1060th Transportation Company sprang into action to help treat the victims.

"It was like a bolt of lightning," said Staff Sgt. Mark Welch. "It was just boom, we're gone. We headed right over towards the first explosion."

Welch and others from his unit responded quickly and are among those who are clearly seen in video from the day as they worked to clear scaffolding, fencing and other debris that separated medical personnel from victims of the blasts.

"It was just a mess of just stuff that used to resemble people," said 1st Lt. Steve Fiola. "So we just started pulling debris off. There was burning debris everywhere."

Members of the Massachusetts Guard would then go on to assist local, state and federal officials with the search for and eventual capture of those responsible for the bombing.

Earlier in the year, Guard members responded to massive blizzards that blanketed portions of the Midwest, as well as heavy snow that fell throughout New England, Delaware and Virginia. Guard members assisted local authorities with snow removal, health and wellness checks, emergency transportation and other tasks. Additionally, Guard members in Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma responded more recently to winter weather conditions that left those states covered in snow and ice.

Guard members also responded to tornado outbreaks throughout the Midwest, including the massive tornado that devastated the town of Moore, Okla.

"It's heartbreaking to see your community like this," said Spc. James Kimball, an infantryman assigned to the Oklahoma Army Guard's B Company, 1st Battalion, 179th Infantry Regiment, who grew up in the Moore area and responded to the aftermath of the tornado. "I had a fishing spot out here that I loved to fish, and me and my buddies used to go up and down these streets having a good time. You don't want to see your hometown make the world news in this way."

While members of Kimball's unit provided security, transportation and helped clear debris to make way for others to respond, members of the Oklahoma Air Guard's 146th Air Support Operations Squadron used thermal imaging equipment to search through the devastated town for survivors who may have been trapped under debris.

"Hopefully, we'll find survivors," said 2nd Lt. Gabriel Bird as the unit responded to the tornado.

This year also marked the Air Guard's 40th  anniversary of flying aircraft equipped with the modular airborne firefighting system. And with wildfires in Colorado, California and other areas, aircrews were readily engaged with flying missions in support of U.S. Forest Service wild land fire-fighting efforts, dropping more than 1.3 million gallons of fire retardant in more than 530 flying sorties.

Additionally, Guard members used helicopters and other methods to assist with battling wildfires.

Not only was Colorado hit with wildfires, but heavy rains brought severe flooding throughout the central part of the state. Guard members responded and were instrumental in taking many to safety.

"Our main objective was search and extraction," said Pfc. Tyler Grandbouche, with the Colorado Army National Guard's B Company, 147th Brigade Support Battalion. "So, we actually took units up into the treacherous waters where normal vehicles couldn't pass—we have the high-rise vehicles—so we would take them up there and they would go to houses and search for people and animals and make sure that anybody and everybody from the town was safe," he said, adding that they often worked with members of local and state rescue agencies.

The response to the Colorado flooding also saw the largest airlift rescue operation since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, according to Colorado National Guard officials.

After floodwaters subsided, Army and Air Guard engineers worked to clear rubble, and assist local authorities with rebuilding bridges and roadways washed out by the floods.

The year also saw two members of the Army Guard make history as they became the first female soldiers to obtain the M1 Abrams tank system maintainer military occupational specialty.

Pvt. Erika L. Leroy, with the California Army National Guard, and Pfc. Emma Briggs, with the Ohio Army Guard's 737th Support Company, earned that distinction in August, with Briggs also being named honor graduate of their class.

"It's a lot of responsibility to take in, but I'm pretty confident," Leroy said. "I know my material, and hopefully I'll be able to come back here and show more females that they can do this and give them someone to relate to."

Many other positions in the Army Guard that had traditionally been male only were opened to women in 2013 when the Defense Department and the Army made changes to the policy excluding women from ground combat units.

The New York Army Guard's 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team was one of nine Army Guard brigades that began integrating women into battalion headquarters elements as part of the program. While women have been attached to combat arms units from other types of Army units and have seen direct combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, women have not been assigned to these units at the battalion level or below. Positions in actual line units, however, remain unaffected by the changes.

Guard members also continued to deploy overseas throughout the year to locations including Afghanistan, Kuwait, Kosovo and the Horn of Africa and other areas where they performed missions from route reconnaissance and typical infantry missions to maintenance, airlift, security and convoy missions.

For soldiers with the South Dakota Army Guard's 152nd Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, their deployment to Afghanistan included preparations for the coming drawdown of U.S. forces in that country. Part of their mission was to organize and determine the serviceability of shipping containers used to transport equipment.

"I have heard that there are up to 80,000 containers in Afghanistan," said Maj. David Moore, support operations officer with the battalion. "Our goal is to help reduce the number of containers by identifying whether or not they need to be demolished for scrap metal or reused for packing up equipment to send home."

Other Guard programs continued in 2013.

The State Partnership Program, in which Guard elements partner with nations throughout the world in a variety of subject matter exchanges, continued to grow. Created in 1992 in the wake of the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, the first partnerships were established in 1993 and now number 65.

"I am not sure that anyone in 1993 imagined what an extraordinary tool for building partnership capacity the State Partnership Program would become," said Gen. Frank J. Grass, the chief of the National Guard Bureau. "It is one of the National Guard's valuable contributions to the American people, the national security and the meaningful connection it enables between Main Street America and our partners around the world."

As the SPP reached the 20-year mark, the New York Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Wing marked its 26th year of participation in Operation Deep Freeze, flying missions in support of research efforts in Antarctica by the National Science Foundation.