The Year in Review: Guard Members Reflect on a Busy 2018 and Look Ahead to 2019

Soldiers with the North Carolina Army National Guard’s 690th Brigade Support Battalion assist North Carolina Department of Transportation personnel with recovering snowplows and assisting stuck drivers during a winter storm, Dec. 9, 2018. (Photo by SGT Joe Roudabush.)

ARLINGTON, Va. – The Army National Guard closed out a busy year that saw its members deploy overseas, take part in international training exercises, and respond to emergencies and large-scale natural disasters at home. 

Those natural disasters included two back-to-back hurricanes, starting with Hurricane Florence, which made landfall in mid-September along the North Carolina coast. After coming ashore, the storm moved slowly across the region, causing massive flooding and isolating many communities in North and South Carolina.

“We’ve dealt with this before, but not at these record levels,” said MG Bob Livingston, adjutant general of the South Carolina National Guard.

Ultimately, more than 6,600 Soldiers and Airmen from nearly 30 states supported civil authorities in response to Florence. The Guard was still responding to Florence when Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle in early October.

Within hours of the storm making landfall, the first elements of the Florida Army National Guard’s Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment, arrived in affected areas, providing not only security, but also general assistance to citizens.

“Our unit’s part was not only facilitating local agencies but [helping] the residents, so they can clean up, and at the same time feel like their stuff was secure when they were not home,” said SPC Victor R. Reyes-Soler.

Those storms were still yet to come when family, friends, and service members gathered in February for an award ceremony and remembrance of PFC Emmanuel Mensah, of the New York Army National Guard’s 107th Military Police Company. He died in an apartment fire in the Bronx, New York, after rescuing four people and heading back into the burning building to save others.

“Difficult though it may be, please think of this ceremony as an opportunity not to mourn, but to celebrate PFC Mensah, an unselfish Soldier of incredible bravery, who sacrificed his own life to save several others and while attempting to save more,” said LTG Timothy Kadavy, director of the Army National Guard, during the ceremony.

PFC Mensah, who died Dec. 28, 2017, was posthumously awarded the Soldier’s Medal, the Army’s highest award for bravery and valor outside of combat.

While LTG Kadavy and others remembered and honored PFC Mensah, other Guard members were responding to winter storms that clobbered many Eastern States during the early part of the year, helping stuck drivers and conducting wellness checks.

Winter weather also meant athletic competition, as Guard members took part in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. The Soldier-athletes, including four members of the New York Army National Guard, took part in the luge and bobsled events. CPT Mike Kohn of the Virginia Army National Guard served as the bobsled team’s assistant coach.

“I know that I can count on everybody on my team,” said SGT Justin Olsen, who competed in the four-man bobsled event. “Especially because they’re Soldiers. [The other team members] are extremely more accomplished in their military career than I am. So, whether they look up to me in the sport, I look up to them for what they’ve done off the ice.”

While none of the Soldiers received medals in the games, many will continue training for future competitions.

“Going to the Olympics isn’t enough for me,” said SGT Emily Sweeney, a luge athlete and military police officer with the New York Army Guard, who crashed during her final run in the 2018 games. “The work isn’t over.”

As winter faded into early spring, Guard members were called up to duty along the Southwest border, assisting U.S. Customs and Border Protection as part of Operation Guardian Support. Roughly 2,100 Guard members were on duty throughout the year at various locations along the border providing engineering, communications, vehicle, and logistical support.

In May, volcanic eruptions in Hawaii saw almost 400 Guard members from Hawaii and other States assist local authorities by monitoring air quality, evacuating affected areas, and providing security.

With summer heat came wildfires in many regions of California and other Western States, and Guard members responded.

California Army National Guard aircrews took on wildfire suppression duty, using UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters – the newest version of the venerable helicopter – to fight them. For aircrews, the new model made a difference.

“It’s a more efficient rotor system, particularly at the low airspeeds that we’re operating at with regard to firefighting operations,” said CW2 Doug Martine, a pilot with the California Army Guard’s 1st Assault Helicopter Battalion, 140th Aviation Regiment. “The engines are a little bit more unleashed, so we get some more torque and lift out of it.”

Guard members spent the fall months battling the Camp Fire, one of the largest wildfires in California history. For some, the wildfires proved to be extraordinarily challenging.

“It was definitely the most intense mode of flight that I’ve flown,” said 1LT Vincent Sherrill, another helicopter pilot with the 1/140th. “When you’re in a service mission like this, people’s homes are at risk, people’s lives are at risk, and you’re doing some pretty serious flying in some pretty serious conditions.”

While many Guard members were busy battling wildfires, others were battling cyber threats.

Cyber specialists throughout the Guard were not only on duty deterring cyber threats, but also took part in numerous training exercises throughout the year. That included Patriot Warrior, a training exercise held at Fort McCoy, Wis.

“These scenarios provide our Soldiers, and also the Airmen, with a very realistic outlook on what both entities could expect in the real world,” said MAJ Robert Bell, operations and plans officer with the Delaware Army National Guard’s 261st Theater Tactical Signal Brigade.

In addition to cyber exercises, Guard members also continued to participate in joint and multi-national exercises throughout the world.

More than 700 Soldiers from the Indiana Army National Guard’s 76th Infantry Brigade Combat Team took part in Pacific Pathways. The brigade served as the command and control element for the exercises, marking the first time a Guard unit has served in a leadership role overseeing the training event.

More than 18,000 service members from 19 countries participated in Saber Strike, held in Poland and the Baltic region of Europe. For Soldiers with the Michigan Army National Guard’s 464th Quartermaster Company, that meant running 24-hour operations to provide laundry and shower services for many of those taking part.

“We are here to help boost the morale of the Soldier,” said SGT Carlo Grier. “There is nothing better than a hot shower and clean clothes after a long day’s work.”

Other Army Guard Soldiers took part in brigade training rotations at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., or the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La. Those and other training scenarios were part of Army Guard 4.0, which represents the next step in realistic, intensive training to prepare for deployment. As part of that, Soldiers spend more time in the field honing their skills, allowing the Guard to deploy more quickly and effectively to a variety of missions worldwide.

“Our high-priority units – such as armored brigade combat teams, Stryker brigade combat teams, attack-reconnaissance battalions, and critical enablers – must be ready on short notice for unspecified missions,” said LTG Kadavy, the Army Guard director of Army Guard 4.0. “We have to maintain the readiness of these units in order to respond to emerging demands.”

That increased focus was clear to Soldiers with the Kentucky Army National Guard’s 149th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, who, in June, took part in a two-week training exercise directly tied to the Army Guard 4.0 initiative.

“It definitely felt like we were on deployment,” said SGT Dustin Mullins. “The brigade trained much closer together, and the tempo was much faster.”

That focus on more intensive training was brought home to many Guard units that deployed this year. Many of those deployments were to Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, and the Horn of Africa.

PVT Hayden Johnson, center, a cavalry scout with the Mississippi Army National Guard’s Troop B, 1st Squadron, 98th Cavalry Regiment, aims an FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile during a combined arms live fire exercise as part of Desert Observer II at the Udairi Range Complex near Camp Buehring, Kuwait, Dec. 12, 2018. (Photo by SPC Jovi Prevot.)

PVT Hayden Johnson, center, a cavalry scout with the Mississippi Army National Guard’s Troop B, 1st Squadron, 98th Cavalry Regiment, aims an FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile during a combined arms live fire exercise as part of Desert Observer II at the Udairi Range Complex near Camp Buehring, Kuwait, Dec. 12, 2018. (Photo by SPC Jovi Prevot.)

For about 220 Soldiers with the New York Army Guard’s 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, deployment meant serving in Ukraine to work with and mentor Ukrainian army units. Part of the Joint Multinational Training Group – Ukraine, the Soldiers focused on training based on interoperability with NATO elements.

The year 2018 marked significant milestones for the Guard.

In May, the Guard celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Department of Defense’s State Partnership Program (SPP), which pairs National Guard elements with partner nations worldwide. The SPP now includes 75 partnerships with 81 countries. The 75th partnership – the West Virginia National Guard and Qatar – was announced in May.

“I think it’s a testament to the men and women of the West Virginia National Guard, to our governor, to our [elected officials] who all came together to say we want to be a broader part of the Nation’s defense and take on an even greater role with the establishment of this partnership with Qatar,” said MG James Hoyer, adjutant general of the West Virginia Guard.

November 2018 also marked the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, a war that saw more than 103,000 Guard members killed or wounded.

“We remember the battles that raged here in the fields, the forests, and the towns,” said GEN Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau, during a ceremony marking the occasion. “We also remember the sacrifice made in the cause of freedom – because the United States honors her war dead.”

The National Guard comprised 18 of the 43 Army divisions the United States sent to France in World War I.

While some reflected on the Guard’s part in the First World War, others looked to new roles the Guard took on in 2018. The headquarters of the 54th Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) was activated this year as part of the Indiana Army National Guard. One of six such brigades throughout the total Army, the SFABs focus on training, advising, and assisting forces of partner and allied nations.

“When deployed, SFAB Soldiers will be the day-to-day experts combatant commanders need to train, advise, and assist [allied and partner security forces],” said MG Courtney P. Carr, adjutant general of the Indiana National Guard.

Training and preparation were among the key elements at play in early December when the District of Columbia National Guard took part in the state funeral of former President George H.W. Bush, who died in Houston on Nov. 30 at age 94.

“The goal is to make it look like it was easy,” said MAJ Mark Ballantyne, operations officer and mission planner with the D.C. Guard’s Multi-agency Augmentation Command. “Because then, that means we did our job right.”

As 2019 unfolds, the Guard is prepared to continue its legacy of taking on any mission – here at home or overseas.

As you look ahead in this new year, consider being a part of something bigger. With the opportunity to serve in your home State, learn lifelong transferrable skills, and make a difference in your country and community, the Army National Guard can be your ticket to a college degree and the adventure of a lifetime. Explore current opportunities on our job board or contact a local recruiter today.

From an original article by Tech. Sgt. Erich B. Smith and Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy, which appeared in the News section of NationalGuard.mil in December 2018.

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