National Guard looks back on busy 2016, prepares for 2017

By Tech. Sgt. Erich B. Smith December 30, 2016

ARLINGTON, Va. — The National Guard saw a busy 2016, meeting challenges both at home and abroad, deploying overseas, responding to large-scale emergencies and natural disasters at home while also taking part in a number of milestone events and transitioning to new roles.

One of those new roles included a change in leadership in September when Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel took the helm as the 28th chief of the National Guard Bureau. He took over from Army Gen. Frank J. Grass, who retired after four years as the chief and 46 years of service.

The Air National Guard also saw new leadership, with Air Force Lt. Gen. L. Scott Rice taking the reins from Air Force Lt. Gen. Stanley Clarke III, who retired, and the Army National Guard welcomed Command Sgt. Maj. Christopher Kepner as the 11th sergeant major of the Army Guard.

As he took on the duties of chief, Lengyel emphasized the primary mission of today’s National Guard.

“We fight our nation’s wars as part of the United States Army and part of the United States Air Force,” he said. “Our training for the warfight, our ability to deploy and support it, is our number one role, the number one reason why we exist.”

As part of that, approximately 300 Airmen from the Vermont Air National Guard’s 158th Fighter Wing deployed late in the year in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, a joint and coalition effort to defeat and destroy ISIS.

“We are excited to generate, execute, and sustain decisive combat airpower,” said Air Force Col. David C. Lyons, commander of the 407th Air Expeditionary Group, which oversees the deployed unit.

Army Guard members continued to play key roles overseas in 2016. For the first time since the Korean War, two Army National Guard division headquarters were deployed to a forward location concurrently.

Soldiers from the Texas Army National Guard’s 36th Infantry Division deployed to Afghanistan, while more than 450 Soldiers from the Virginia Army National Guard’s 29th Infantry Division headed to Kuwait. The 29th ID Soldiers are set to provide oversight and command and control of more than 18,000 service members taking part in a variety of operations throughout the Middle East.

“This is the epitome of the Total Force and displays how the Army National Guard is fully integrated into the Total Force,” said Army Maj. Gen. Blake Ortner, the commanding general of the 29th ID, adding that the deployment will see the largest number of troops the division has led since the Second World War.

Numerous other Army and Air Guard units deployed to other locations, took part in large-scale training exercises at the National Training Center or multi-national exercises in Europe and other locations.

Back at home, January saw the East Coast blanketed with snow from winter storm Jonas, prompting governors in 12 states to call out more than 2,200 Guard members to clear snow, assist stranded motorists, provide health and wellness checks and transport first responders and emergency workers.

Later in the month Guard members from the Michigan National Guard responded to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. With high levels of lead in the city’s drinking water, Michigan Guard members distributed bottled water throughout the city.

“This is why I joined the military — to help people,” said Spc. Charles Colwell, a medic with the Michigan Army National Guard’s Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 125th Infantry Regiment. Colwell was one of 70 Guard members activated to support water distribution efforts.

Meanwhile, more than 600 Soldiers and Airmen of the Missouri National Guard kicked off the year responding to historic flooding throughout the eastern portion of the state. While on duty, Missouri Guard members supported local authorities by staffing traffic control points, providing evacuation support, filling sandbags and purifying water.

Missouri Guard members weren’t the only ones to face flooding during the year. In March, more than 1300 Soldiers and Airmen with the Louisiana National Guard responded to heavy flooding, rescuing more than 4,200 people and 354 pets and assembling emergency levee walls on river banks.

“Anything we can do to save people’s businesses and lives, that’s what we’re here to do,” said Army Staff Sgt. Tommy Dunlop, with the Louisiana Army Guard’s 844th Engineer Company.

The March flooding was just the start for Louisiana Guard members. A massive, “thousand year” flood from heavy rains affected southern Louisiana in August and saw more than 3,800 Soldiers and Airmen respond. Guard members rescued more than 19,000 citizens and distributed more than 78,000 meals, nearly 500,000 bottles of water and 961,500 sandbags.

The flooding damaged more than 146,000 homes, saw more than 30,000 people leave their homes and was considered by some to be one of the worst U.S. natural disasters since Hurricane Sandy struck New York and New Jersey in 2012.

For some who responded, the large-scale flooding reminded them of Hurricane Katrina.

“It brings me back to when Hurricane Katrina passed in 2005 and I saw the National Guard around in all the neighborhoods,” said Army Sgt. Bryan Campo, with the Louisiana Army Guard’s 2225th Multi-role Bridge Company. Campo and other members of his unit navigated deep flood waters using boats they typically employ to erect floating bridges used to move units in combat.

“This is one of my proudest moments,” he said of taking part in the response.

October saw flooding throughout the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida from Hurricane Matthew. Though the storm stayed offshore, heavy rains resulted in the mobilization of about 6,000 Guard members throughout those states.

For the Florida Guard, it was the first time in close to a decade they responded to a large flood.

“It’s been almost 10 years since we’ve had to do this,” said Army Brig. Gen. Ralph Ribas, the joint task force commander for the Florida Guard. “But there’s a lot of experience and everyone’s going to do what it takes to be successful.”

Guard members supported rescue efforts and assisted local law enforcement agencies during the flooding.

While some regions suffered through too much water, a lack of water in other areas meant dry conditions and wildfires.

In September, aircrews from the Nevada Air National Guard’s 152nd Airlift Wing battled blazes in Nevada, Oregon and Idaho with C-130 Hercules aircraft equipped with the Modular Airborne Firefighting System. The unit is the newest Air Guard unit to fly the MAFFS mission and saw aircrews fly 142 sorties, dispensing more than 3.5 million pounds of fire retardant and water.

“The actual drops [were] challenging and exhilarating,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Tony Machabee, one of the first pilots from the unit to fly the MAFFS mission. “It’s a great feeling to see [the] immediate results whether we are dropping a protective line of retardant between the fire and someone’s property or dropping it directly on flames leaping from the tops of trees.”

In July, historically dry conditions kept California Army National Guard Soldiers busy flying UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, dropping water on wildfires in the northern part of the state. Members of the Colorado Army National Guard also responded to wildfires near Nederland, Colorado, during the same month. Later in the summer, Soldiers from the South Carolina and Tennessee Army National Guard used Black Hawks and CH-47 Chinook helicopters to drop water on wildfires in eastern Tennessee.

The past year saw continued growth of the National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership program, which pairs up National Guard elements with partner nations worldwide. Argentina became the 73rd partner nation in November, teaming up with the Georgia National Guard.

“The SPP allows us to leverage the deep and trusting ties the National Guard has built with a very large group of foreign allies across every combatant command,” Lengyel said.

During the year, the Georgia Guard built partnerships in other ways.

Soldiers with the Georgia Army Guard’s 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team were among the first Army Guard units to take part in the Associated Unit program, which integrates active and reserve component units at all levels for training, readiness and deployments. The brigade is aligned with the active component’s 3rd Infantry Division, while an infantry battalion from the 3rd ID has been incorporated into the 48th IBCT.

“Much of [the] Army’s capacity is resident in the reserve components and we must rely more heavily on them to meet the demands of a complex global environment,” said Army Gen. Mark Milley, chief of staff of the Army, referring to the program.

While Soldiers with the 48th IBCT donned the shoulder patch of the 3rd ID, Army Capt. Robert Killian, with the Colorado Army National Guard’s B Company, 5th Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group, and Army Staff Sgt. Erich Friedlein, with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, took first place in the Lt. Gen. David E. Grange Jr. Best Ranger Competition, the first time the 33-year-old competition has been won by an Army Guard team.

“It still really hasn’t totally sunk in yet,” said Friedlein, after finishing the competition. “I’m just really amazed. I can’t believe we did it after three days of struggling and just constantly trying to chip away [at the competition for] first place.”

Army Guard teams also took first place honors in the Sullivan Cup, which names the best of the best among Army tank crews, the Army’s annual best sniper competition and the International Sniper Competition.

The National Guard also expanded cyber capabilities this year with the addition of the 185th Cyber Operations Squadron, an Air National Guard unit based in Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia. The Guard now boasts 40 cyber units in 29 states.

“We are active in nearly every facet of cyberspace operations,” said Lengyel. “And we practice our capabilities routinely at all levels.”

As the year closed out, Guard members began preparations for the 58th Presidential Inauguration, scheduled for the end January. Guard members from more 40 states, territories and the District of Columbia will be among about 15,000 military service members supporting the event. More than 8,000 Guard members are scheduled to take part in a variety of roles including marching in the inaugural parade and assisting local authorities with crowd control and security assistance.

As Soldiers and Airmen from throughout the Guard look back on the past year, they also stand ready for 2017.

“Although we are proud of our heritage and our past, I am more excited about our future,” said Lengyel.

This story was compiled from various reports produced in 2016.

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