(This article originally appeared in the August 2021 issue of Military Officer, a magazine available to all MOAA Premium and Life members. Learn more about the magazine here; learn more about joining MOAA here.)
If the pilot stranded on the side of Alaska’s Mount Susitna had any chance of survival, elite pararescuemen had to move fast.
The pilot’s distress signal reached the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson as temperatures plunged below 20 degrees and the night’s darkness and fog obstructed their view, forcing them to rely on night vision goggles to detect green splotches of body heat. Within 90 minutes, a pararescueman attached to a cable lowered from a Pave Hawk helicopter to the downed pilot — frostbitten, but otherwise uninjured — and whisked him to safety.
It was just another day for the Alaska Air National Guard’s 176th Wing, tallying 2,000 rescue missions throughout its history. But it was only four days into 2020 — a year that would test the grit and resiliency of the National Guard in missions at home and deployments abroad.
No one could have predicted the roller coaster of a year the National Guard would have, but after that first mission, 120,000 National Guard members would be dispatched to nearly every corner of the country to purify water, distribute food, work polls on election night, enforce public safety, and any other task their communities threw at them.
Dubbed “The Year of the National Guard” by Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, 2020 became a headline-clinching year for the force, which hadn’t mobilized so many people since it prepared for World War II.
The onslaught of calls for help could have pushed the Guard past its limit, but instead it highlighted how servicemembers seamlessly moved from crisis to crisis.
Combining national emergencies and overseas tours of duty, the National Guard said servicemembers spent more than 20 million days in the field.
“It was an interesting year,” Hokanson told Military Officer. “Everything we were asked to do, we did.”
They’ve been answering the call for more than 300 years and now comprise about 20% of America’s total Joint Force. If 2020 is any indication, the future is unpredictable, yet Hokanson is sure about one thing: The Guard will be there.
“You look at what we’ve done over the last year, [and] it really is amazing the difference that they made in the communities,” Hokanson said. “Had we not had a National Guard, I just think of the impact that it could have potentially had on communities.”
The National Guard participated in COVID-19 relief missions in every state and U.S. territory. The New York National Guard (NYNG) was among the first to mobilize and dispatched more than 6,100 Guardsmen to screen passengers arriving at airports, assemble virus test kits, and administer vaccines.
Lt. Col. Aaron Lefton, a 20-year member of the NYNG who’s led combat patrols in Baghdad, received orders in mid-March to turn the Javits Center in New York City into a field hospital. Since then, he’s spent 380 days mobilized for COVID relief missions.
Tech. Sgt. Suzanne Nelson prepares a COVID-19 vaccination to be administered by the Arizona National Guard. (Photo by Tech. Sgt. Michael Matkin/Air National Guard)
“There’s not a playbook. … We’re doing all new things with all new team members,” Lefton said. “I was very proud of that effort, that amazing team that really did make it into a hospital. It was good to hear that people from your own community were going there and recovering and making it home.”
Guard members were stationed at airports to screen travelers for contact tracing, which evoked emotions from comfort to discontent. Guard members relied on customer service skills to make the task as efficient and pleasant as possible.
“I’ve heard our leadership call us a Swiss Army knife — we can do anything,” Lefton said. “We can perform our federal mission to fight and win wars. We can also be an essential part of our communities and help with just about any emergency situation. If we haven’t done it before, we’re going to figure it out.”
Just as the pandemic began to peak, Guardsmen were called from nearly every state to maintain peace as civil unrest reached a boiling point in protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020. On these missions, Guard members wore tactical gear and carried rifles as they assisted civilian authorities to preserve public safety.
The National Guard said members worked 627,659 days providing support to law enforcement on these missions.
Wisconsin’s National Guard was tested throughout the summer as they responded to civil unrest around two high-profile police officer-involved shootings. By the end of the year, Wisconsin mobilized 3,800 Guard members for 12 civil unrest missions, according to the state.
National Guard troops arrive while demonstrators hold a Back the Blue Rally in front of the Kenosha County, Wisc., Courthouse on Aug. 30, 2020. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
The unforeseen level of violence required the Guard to call an additional 500 troops. State correctional facilities loaned tactical equipment because the Guard didn’t have enough for the extra troops.
“We have our typical responses — flooding, fires, those types of things — but civil disturbance missions, those don’t come around very often,” said Capt. Alicia Dorsett, a logistics officer for the Wisconsin National Guard who supported eight of those missions last year. “They obviously know that’s what they’re signing up for, but not to the extent to have  missions in a little over a year. … I would have never imagined.”
Dorsett watched reports of violence with other leaders, hoping it wouldn’t escalate to the point that a soldier would need to use deadly force. They quickly learned what they were up against.
“The Kenosha response, that was probably the most violent civil disturbance mission that we did,” Dorsett said. “That was a scary one because soldiers were getting bricks thrown at them. We had a soldier get hit in the ear with a firework that they shot at the soldiers, and that soldier now has permanent hearing loss in that ear.”
Yet, day after day, the Guard stood ready.
“The Guard is neutral,” Dorsett said. “They’re there protecting businesses and making sure they don’t get looted, but also there to protect the people and their First Amendment rights and their ability to protest, which I think that message gets lost. We’re not there to take sides; we’re there to protect everybody.”
Tension in the country erupted on Jan. 6 when protestors breached security at the U.S. Capitol. Historic buildings became the backdrop to armed National Guard soldiers on duty at the Capitol grounds for months after the attack. Army Maj. Gen. William Walker, a seasoned federal agent from the Drug Enforcement Administration, was the commanding general of the D.C. National Guard at the time.
[RELATED: More from Maj. Gen. William Walker]
“I was waiting for the green light — the ‘go,’ if you will — but I knew with no fear of contradiction that we would be part of the support,” he said. “So we were ready and we eventually were authorized to go … and help restore order and move the mob, the protestors, from the side of the Capitol complex that we were assigned off of the complex.”
His command of more than 26,000 troops caught the attention of Congress. A few months later, the House confirmed Walker to serve as its sergeant-at-arms, which is the top law enforcement officer for the House side of the Capitol complex.
Mother Nature threw additional unpredictable challenges at National Guard troops. From May to November, 30 tropical storms and 14 hurricanes — the most ever recorded in a single season — walloped the Atlantic coastline.
National Guard members from 22 states worked ahead of storms to reinforce levees, and after storms to clear downed trees from roadways. In Louisiana, more than 3,000 Guard members were activated for Hurricane Laura, a category 4 storm. There wasn’t widespread flooding, but the hurricane’s wind tied for the strongest to make landfall since 1856.
Louisiana Army National Guard soldiers distribute Meals, Ready-to-Eat, water, and ice to citizens in Lake Charles, La., on Aug. 30, 2020 in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura. (Photo by Master Sgt. Toby Valadie/Air National Guard)
“It’s really hard to put into words the amount of destruction that 130 to 160 miles per hour sustained winds can cause,” said Lt. Col. Aaron Duplechin, who commanded a task force assigned to Hurricane Laura recovery efforts.
It was one of the most damaging hurricanes Duplechin has responded to during his 28 years of service in the Louisiana National Guard. Troops had to pause their recovery efforts on Hurricane Laura to hunker down for Hurricane Delta, which came just three weeks later.
“It was a wild event, to say the least,” Duplechin said. “And of course, all this is going on with COVID-19.”
The Louisiana National Guard served 5.7 million meals and 7.8 million liters of water to the community, according to the state.
Duplechin returned home from a deployment to Iraq just as Hurricane Katrina battered his beloved home state in 2005. He’s proud of the work of the National Guard over the years, especially when he can help his community mend and heal.
“We all put the uniform on because we have a sense of patriotism,” Duplechin said. “We like to help other people, especially ones that can’t help themselves, be it secure them or protect them. It’s much more meaningful when you’re helping people and it’s your community.”
National Guard aviators flew missions to combat wildfires ripping through 9.5 million acres — that’s more land mass than the entire state of Maryland.
Colorado Army National Guard 1st Lt. Brianna Dahm walked alongside flames in her day job as a civilian firefighter. But in the military, her first time flying a Black Hawk on a wildfire mission was battling the East Fork Fire that straddled Colorado and New Mexico in 2020.
Dahm gingerly turned the aircraft to avoid sudden movements that would cause the heavy bucket of water to sway too much below the helicopter. She was learning on the job because the COVID-19 pandemic canceled annual wildfire training she would have completed. Every minute was precious as she pingponged from a reservoir to the intense wildfire. Dahm said she and another crew dropped about 100 buckets of water in one day.
Radio communication from the crews on the ground could put her helicopter within proximity of the target. By eyesight, the crew chief aboard the back of the helicopter navigated Dahm closer.
A Black Hawk helicopter empties a water bucket onto a wildfire near Paisley, Ore., in September 2020. (Photo by Maj. Leslie Reed/Oregon Military Department Public Affairs)
“Water’s away!” the crew chief would yell out, a cue to release a gush of water from the aerial bucket. From her angle in the cockpit, Dahm couldn’t get a good look at the water falling, but she’ll never forget what she saw.
“I saw this huge herd of elk running,” Dahm said, realizing their work gave the wildlife a better chance of survival. “I feel like it made me fly better, knowing every water bucket I picked up would count for something.”
In northern Colorado, the Cameron Peak Fire spread so vastly more than 20,000 people had to evacuate the area, according to reports. It was contained in December 2020 after more than 208,000 acres burned, making it the largest wildfire in Colorado’s history.
Chief Warrant Officer 3 Clayton Horney received an SOS alert from a hiker who became trapped by the fire. Horney said the National Guard and its civilian partners are the state’s only hoist rescue team, composed of 28 aviation search and rescue experts.
Horney flew a medical evacuation helicopter for the Army for almost eight years, including deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, so he didn’t rattle easily. He was the pilot in command of a Black Hawk on a daring air mission in Afghanistan in 2008 that’s detailed in the book The Chosen Few. Horney followed the GPS coordinates sent by the SOS as he flew in a Lakota helicopter. They scanned the ground and spotted the trapped hiker in a saddle of land wedged between two burning mountain peaks.
“We weren’t in imminent danger, but looking down you could see a massive inferno,” he said.
They touched down. A medical technician hopped off to check the hiker for injuries and gave him a helmet, earplugs, and a mask to rush him to safety.
“He was grateful,” Horney said. “We didn’t talk to him much at the time, but we did get to see the local news. It was his birthday … he said it was never a situation he envisioned to get to, being cut off by a wildfire. He’s a tough guy.”
Countless Other Missions
Several other striking missions were also led by the Guard — stateside and overseas.
Alaska and Hawaii pararescue teams were on standby in May 2020 on the Pacific Ocean if a NASA launch mishap forced the astronauts to abort and splash down. A few lucky Guard members were greeted by Lady Gaga as they supported the presidential inauguration in January 2021.
The Minnesota National Guard spent nearly a year at the Horn of Africa to provide force protection, and the Iowa National Guard deployed to Kosovo as part of the NATO-led peacekeeping mission.
Perhaps most notably, Guard members have been a steady presence in Afghanistan for nearly two decades. In May 2021, the last of Utah National Guard’s 1st Attack/Reconnaissance Battalion, 211th Aviation Regiment returned from a yearlong mission in Afghanistan. The regiment provided combat air support to ground forces.
The war in Afghanistan has stretched over the entire 18-year career of Capt. Rich Johnson, who commanded an Apache helicopter company during the deployment. He’d previously served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Johnson has piloted the Army’s Black Hawk, Lakota, and Apache helicopters, which have been critical on the front lines of air assault for the U.S. The helicopters are often a welcome sight to ground forces.
“They’ve mentioned to us how grateful they are to know whether they have this overhead immediately or that we’re back on call and standby,” Johnson said.
The National Guard flawlessly picks up missions to work side-by-side with active duty aviators. They have just as many flight training hours and proficiencies, plus they take on additional missions domestically, Johnson said.
“We’re proud of the service that we’re able to provide and support our nation when asked,” Johnson said.
And when the next crisis arises, chances are a member of the National Guard will not be far behind.
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