After years of discussion and community interest, the F-35 Lightning II fifth-generation fighter jet arrived at the 115th Fighter Wing in late April.
“It’s with great joy and obligation that we accept this challenge today of becoming the second Air National Guard fighter wing with the F-35,” said Col. Bart Van Roo, 115th Fighter Wing commander. “As we take on this new challenge, with so much national and international importance, we look forward to working with you all to continue to maximize what we bring to our communities for decades to come.”
The 115th Fighter Wing formally accepted the F-35 mission Sept. 7 during the unit’s 75th anniversary celebration. At that time the wing had eight of its assigned 20 F-35 aircraft.
“The arrival of the F-35s in Wisconsin is the culmination of more than a decade of persistence — though what else do you expect from Badgers, eh?” said Lt. Gen. Marc Sasseville, Vice Chief of the National Guard Bureau. “And more than 75 years of distinguished service all across the nation. The 115th Fighter Wing is synonymous with excellence. You are renowned for dominant air power and combat and agile support of our homeland in times of greatest need.”
The Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs emphasized diversity and equity in 2023, beginning with a new State Joint Diversity Executive Council, which held its first meeting in January. The council is modeled after the National Guard Bureau’s Joint Diversity Executive Council, recognized as one of the best in the nation.
Wisconsin’s council “proactively embeds a systematic application of the diversity, equity and inclusion lens across policies, processes and business decisions,” according to Katie Bermudez, a member of the diversity and inclusion program. “The executive council structure is the key — by virtue of the positional authority held by its members, they can institute meaningful changes to drive the Department of Military Affairs culture toward embracing inclusive behaviors that bring the Soldier, Airman and state employee experience front and center.”
The Wisconsin National Guard implemented Reserve Component Maternity Leave in February, allowing the organization to pay Guard members for maternity leave for up to three drill weekends. The National Guard Bureau approved the policy in December 2022.
“At any given time, the number of Soldiers who fall under RCML is small,” said Sgt. 1st Class Savannah Wanek, a state training manager and Parenthood, Pregnancy and Postpartum (P3) non-commissioned officer in charge. “But it is important to the Wisconsin Guard that no birth parents fall through the cracks.”
The Wisconsin National Guard began installing lactation pods in armories and Air National Guard facilities across the state in the spring. The enclosed booth comes with a bench, shelving, mirror and lights to allow for both nursing and pumping breast milk.
“Accommodating nursing mothers is essential for maintaining a strong, healthy force,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Vanessa Pederson, an advisor with the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s P3 (Parenthood, Pregnancy and Postpartum) program. “Women make up a growing percentage of the military population, and supporting their ability to breastfeed can help to improve morale, retention and readiness.”
While not a Department of Military Affairs initiative, the Wisconsin National Guard supported Women in Aviation Day July 26 at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) annual AirVenture. Four Wisconsin Army National Guard female Soldiers involved in the aviation field spoke about their experiences as part of a panel discussion. All four spoke of entering the Army aviation field almost by accident, and in some cases being surprised that aviation was a career option for Army women.
STATE PARTNERSHIP PROGRAM
The Wisconsin National Guard and the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) continued to strengthen their relationship in 2023.
In March, six Wisconsin Army National Guard noncommissioned officers visited their counterparts in Papua New Guinea for a senior noncommissioned officer information exchange. The visit emphasized health services and medical readiness, sustainment, engineering, infantry and public affairs.
“Outside of our military operations, the way they welcomed us into their ranks far exceed any expectations that I had,” said 1st Sgt. Aaron Ritchie, senior supply sergeant for the 64th Troop Command. “We all feel very humbled to be a part of this partnership.”
In early June, five PNGDF members visited various Wisconsin National Guard installations to build upon the medical information exchange that occurred in 2022. Medical officers from the PNGDF visited the 135th Medical Company Area Support in Waukesha, the Wisconsin Military Academy at Fort McCoy, and the 115th Medical Group at Truax Field in Madison.
“This exchange was unique in its ability to incorporate both Army and Air National Guard representation,” said Maj. Jessica Kelly, the Wisconsin National Guard’s State Partnership Program coordinator. “We learned that Papua New Guinea is starting to emphasize and incorporate more conversations on mental health and whole health concepts.”
Maj. Louisa Wanma, a medical lab scientific officer and second in command of the PNGDF military hospital, spoke of differences between how the two organizations train.
“We’ve learned a lot of things, I will say, we don’t have in our country or don’t do” based on lack of training resources, Wanma said. “We’re understanding how your National Guard operates here. There are some things we learned on Sunday on how we do our business, and some of the things we learned can be helpful to us.”
Members of Troop C, 1st Squadron, 105th Cavalry Regiment became the first “Red Arrow” company-sized element to set foot in Papua New Guinea since the 32nd Division — the predecessor to today’s 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, to which the 105th Cavalry belongs — since World War II when they participated in Tamiok Strike 2023 in August.
105th Cavalry members worked with infantry soldiers from the 1st and 2nd Royal Pacific Infantry Regiments in two locations on tasks including infantry maneuvers, urban operations, stability operations, medical training, and noncommissioned officer professional development.
“The sheer amount of time and effort spent planning and preparing for an exercise on the other side of the world is amazing, but worth it,” said Capt. Michael Cuevas, Troop C commander. “We had multiple planning conferences, weekly sync calls, countless emails and phone calls. The exercise had nearly 200 Soldiers from 10 different active Army units participating in three different locations.”
In late September, explosive ordnance disposal specialists with the 115th Fighter Wing and their PNGDF counterparts attended a subject matter expert exchange at Camp Ripley, Minnesota.
“They were able to practice what had only been trained in theory,” said Senior Master Sgt. Erich Sanford, EOD Flight superintendent with the 115th Fighter Wing.
WISCONSIN NATIONAL GUARD
Members of the Wisconsin Army National Guard joined representatives from the U.S. Navy Reserve and the civilian volunteer Wisconsin Cyber Response Team at Cyber Shield 2023 in early June. Cyber Shield, the Department of Defense’s largest unclassified cyber defense training exercise, helps develop, train and prepare cyber security forces around the country to defend and protect critical cyber infrastructure such as industry, utilities, schools, health care, food suppliers and military networks.
“The Wisconsin National Guard is on the front line of cyber defense because our team has the knowledge, skills, abilities, and resources to play a critical role in the defense of our nation’s cyber combat and vital infrastructure,” said Maj. Jamison Clark, Defensive Cyberspace Operations Element deputy director. “Cyber threats evolve daily, so Cyber Shield creates an immersive opportunity for our experts to stay current on emerging threats, technologies, and best practices so we are prepared to understand, anticipate and prevent attacks on our infrastructure.”
Senior Enlisted Advisor Tony Whitehead — who, in his role as the senior enlisted advisor to Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, is effectively the chief master sergeant for the National Guard — visited Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers and Airmen June 3-5 to discuss the central role each person plays in its modernization strategy. During his discussions with Guard members, Whitehead emphasized that people, readiness, modernization and reform are top priorities for the National Guard.
“I want you to understand just how valuable you are — not just to us in the Guard, but to the overall safety and security of this country,” Whitehead said.
Visitors and enthusiasts at the EAA’s annual AirVenture were able to witness elements of the Wisconsin National Guard flex their muscle during a capabilities demonstration July 28, complete with narration and pyrotechnics.
Aircraft including the F-35 Lightning II, the KC-135 Stratotanker and the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter supported a notional ground assault, while infantry and artillery Soldiers from the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team displayed their military proficiency. Maj. Gen. Paul Knapp, Wisconsin’s adjutant general, spoke to the thousands of spectators before the demonstration commenced.
“Today we’re going to share a portion of the capability our force of nearly 10,000 Soldiers and Airmen bring to the nation’s defense,” Knapp said. “We also play a critical dual role in supporting Wisconsin at home. You might be surprised to find out that our Guardsmen are your neighbors, colleagues and members of your community. Their time in the Wisconsin National Guard has given them unique opportunities, skills and benefits to be sought-after professionals around the state.”
The demonstration was a simulated ground assault, with the F-35 Lightning II from the Madison, Wisconsin-based 115th Fighter Wing conducting strafe and precision munitions “airstrikes” on enemy positions on the airfield. UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from the Madison-based 1st Battalion, 147th Aviation Regiment delivered squads of infantry from the 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry Regiment to a designated landing zone, as members of the 1st Battalion, 120th Field Artillery Regiment fired 105-mm howitzers.
WISCONSIN AIR NATIONAL GUARD
The 115th Fighter Wing responded to a mission from North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) to shoot down an unidentified rectangular object over Lake Huron Feb. 12. Because the 115th was in transition from F-16 fighter jets to the F-35 Lightning II jets, the mission was assigned to an F-16 from the Minnesota Air National Guard’s 148th Fighter Wing in Duluth, Minnesota temporarily assigned to the security mission at Truax Field. The object continued to drift after it was struck by a sidewinder missile, and is believed to have landed in deep waters of Lake Huron on the Canadian side of the border. The object was not recovered.
More than 100 Airmen, along with three KC-135 Stratotankers from the 128th Air Refueling Wing returned to Milwaukee March 5 after completing a nearly three-month deployment to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam in support of the 506th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron. The deployed Airmen flew more than 361 hours during 59 sorties, offloaded more than 1.6 million pounds of fuel to 59 receivers, and moved 328 personnel throughout the region.
“We have been tasked with dozens of high-priority missions all over the Pacific area of responsibility,” Lt. Col. Michael Pauls, officer in charge of the deployed 128th Air Refueling Wing members, explained. “The aircrews have been enjoying the different mission sets flown ... Within one week they could be refueling a reconnaissance aircraft over disputed waters, supporting a B-1 bomber on a short-notice recall mission, or being on alert in Alaska.”
The 128th Air Refueling Wing served as an “air bridge,” providing fuel to aircraft flying from North America to Europe to take part in Air Defender 2023, a German-led multinational live fly-in exercise June 12-23.
“The whole point of this [exercise] is to integrate with our multi-national partners and show that we can seamlessly work as one large coalition force,” said Maj. Brandyn Dietman, deputy director of air refueling with 128th Air Refueling Wing. “Moving 100 aircraft over the ocean in the matter of four or five flying days is a monumental feat. Fighter aircraft can’t make it over by themselves, so they need the tankers to build the air bridge to help them get over.”
The 128th Air Refueling Wing took part in Centennial Contact, commemorating 100 years of air refueling — a pivotal advancement that revolutionized the capabilities of military aviation — June 27. The event paid tribute to the United States Army Air Service's groundbreaking demonstration of air-to-air refueling on June 27, 1923, when a De Haviland DH-4B successfully transferred 75 gallons of gasoline through a gravity-flow hose to another aircraft flying beneath it.
“Milwaukee’s Hometown Brew City Tankers have provided essential fuel to U.S. and NATO receivers in every major conflict since 1963,” said Col. Adria Zuccaro, 128th Air Refueling Wing commander. “One hundred years of experience has trained us well and we are ready to deliver unstoppable air power across the world.”
The 115th Fighter Wing became the first U.S. Air Force base worldwide to terminate all use of foam-based fire suppression systems in its facilities, surpassing the Air Force’s set date of October 2024.
“We’ve been extremely busy over the last five years planning, designing and constructing facilities, but this is a testament to what we’re getting to do for the future Airmen of the 115th Fighter Wing,” Lt. Col. Mike Dunlap, the base civil engineer, said regarding the opportunity presented by the F-35 conversion process to remove foam-based fire suppression systems from the base.
High Expansion Foam systems were part of construction design plans when they first began in February 2018, but in November 2021, the Air Force released a policy to remove foam-based fire suppression systems and transition to water deluge fire protection.
At the time, five hangar facilities were either under construction, fully designed or undergoing design. Recognizing the chance to more quickly comply with the policy, in January 2022, the 115th Fighter Wing petitioned the National Guard Bureau and were allowed to modify all five hangar projects.
“The Air Force was not expecting bases to immediately start implementing these changes — that it would take time — and we were doing it two months into them issuing the policy,” Dunlap said. “Environmentally, we knew that this is what the community wanted to move towards.”
More than 120 members of the 128th Air Control Squadron, based at Volk Field, Wisconsin, spent two weeks at the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center in lower Michigan, learning how to integrate a more lightweight, scalable and mobile air traffic control management system in the field.
Historically, units such as the 128th Air Control Squadron manage aircraft from existing structures with large control room floors and other amenities in the rear of a combat zone. But the changing dynamics of the modern battlefield have increased the importance of mobility.
“Mobility helps us disperse and deploy our capabilities faster and more efficiently in combat zones to meet any potential threat on any terrain,” said Lt. Col. Shonn Breton, 128th Air Control Squadron commander. “As a result, our forces are more dynamic and able to withstand and counter assaults from enemy threats.”
Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, and U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin were among dignitaries to see the training and equipment involved in Northern Lightning counter land training exercise Aug. 18.
Northern Lightning is a large-scale, full-spectrum counter land training exercise. The exercise emphasizes air interdiction and integrates fourth- and fifth-generation fighter aircraft, blending live and simulated training domains. The goal of the exercise is to provide tailored, cost-effective and realistic combat training for the Department of Defense total force.
More than 60 aircraft, with more than 1,100 service members from 14 Air National Guard units, four Air Force units and four U.S. Marine Corps units, conducted more than 600 scheduled sorties during the 11-day exercise, which began Aug. 7.
The Wisconsin Air National Guard continued to develop its enlisted Airmen with programs throughout the year. The State Enlisted Development Program — a comprehensive weeklong course for noncommissioned officers — marked its 10th anniversary in January. Attendees are introduced to continuous process improvement, foundational competencies and emotional intelligence. They learn to write military awards, biographies and memos, and are put to the test in mock promotion boards or job interviews. The course also includes opportunities for mentoring, and open dialog with senior Wisconsin Air National Guard leadership.
Select Airmen participated in the three-day Junior Enlisted Orientation Program to gain a better understanding of the Air National Guard and the support roles they provide in the U.S. Air Force, as well as consider a long-term career in the Air National Guard through connection and networking.
“First-term Airmen being able to see the role that the entire state of Wisconsin has in the Air Force mission is a huge benefit — the professional development classes, and being able to speak with senior leaders, can also impact an Airman’s career choices,” said Senior Master Sgt. Ryan Branz, 128th Air Refueling Wing first sergeant and lead of JEOP 23. “When they hear the success stories or the fact that a one-star general was once a [personnel specialist], their eyes open and realize that they can have a rewarding career in the Air Guard regardless of their Air Force specialty code.”
STARBASE Wisconsin — a Department of Defense initiative, administered by the Wisconsin Air National Guard, to spark interest in science, technology, engineering and math — announced plans to expand from 60 classes of up to 32 students per school year to 90 classes in 2024. The program for fifth-grade students has been in operation since February 2012 at the U.S. Army Reserve Center on Silver Spring Drive.
Chief Master Sgt. Chad Workman was installed as the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s eighth state command chief during a formal ceremony April 1 at Joint Force Headquarters.
“It’s an awesome time to be in the Wisconsin Air National Guard,” Workman said. “The way that we do business is changing at a pace like we’ve never seen before. We must continue to keep our foot on the gas and accelerate to meet the challenges our nation may face.”
Retired Brig. Gen. Gary Ebben, who concluded his 38-year military career serving as interim adjutant general of Wisconsin while simultaneously serving as Wisconsin’s deputy adjutant general for Air, was inducted into the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s Hall of Fame during a Dec. 1 ceremony at Joint Force Headquarters.
WISCONSIN ARMY NATIONAL GUARD
More than 250 Soldiers from the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 157th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade (MEB) returned to Wisconsin July 29 after a nine-month deployment to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti — the only permanent U.S. military installation on the African continent — in support of Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa.
The 157th MEB was the first Wisconsin Army National Guard brigade-level unit to deploy to Africa. They performed a headquarters staff mission for CJTF-HOA — ensuring strategic partnerships with Djibouti and other partner nations, responding to crises, and enhancing stability and peace in the region by acting as a headquarters support unit to coordinate and facilitate mission accomplishment.
“They left a lasting impact on the citizens of Africa, and their commitment has ensured that U.S. interests are better postured for the future,” said Col. Eric Leckel, 157th MEB commander.
The 112th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment deployed eight of its members to Eastern Europe in May to support Operation European Assure, Deter and Reinforce. The mission is part of the United States' commitment to the international order and the security of NATO allies. The 112th MPAD’s mass communication specialists are providing public affairs support to U.S. and allied forces operating in the region.
Wisconsin Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopters from Army Aviation Support Facility #2 in Madison were dispatched the week of April 12 to support fire suppression efforts near Necedah in Juneau County. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources requested the Black Hawks to bolster emergency fire support for what it called the Black River complex — two wildfires in Juneau County. The Jack Pine fire area affected more than 80 acres and resulted in residents being evacuated. The Arcadia fire was near Fort McCoy and affected more than 2,800 acres.
Aviation units collaborated with local agencies for a pair of training events. In January, a Black Hawk helicopter and crew from West Bend’s Army Aviation Support Facility #1 worked with ground teams from the Trail Ambassador Program and representatives from Merrill and Russell fire departments, the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department and the state Department of Natural Resources for search and rescue training. In early to midsummer, Black Hawk helicopters and crews from the West Bend-based Company C, 1st Battalion, 168th Aviation Regiment and Company G, 2nd Battalion, 104th Aviation Regiment — both medevac assets of the 1st Battalion, 147th Aviation — engaged in training scenarios tailored specifically to the critical care flight paramedics, aircrews and the team at Aurora BayCare in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
“This helps train nurses for future partnerships if we ever needed to evacuate a patient using types of transportation that we don’t often see,” said Robyn Merkatoris, a nursing professional development specialist for the intensive care unit at Aurora BayCare.
The entire 1st Battalion, 120th Field Artillery, along with Company F, 132nd Brigade Support Battalion and 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team fire support members, participated in Northern Strike, the country’s largest National Guard Bureau-sponsored military exercise, in January, when temperatures dipped below those in Alaska in recent years.
“This event taught us how our equipment operates in a cold-weather environment against a near-peer threat,” said Lt. Col. Nathan Bennington, battalion commander. “We gained a lot of lessons through it, and have developed a training plan to overcome these deficiencies.”
The 32nd Brigade participated in eXportable Combat Training Center (XCTC) training at Fort McCoy in July, in preparation for the more challenging four-week exercise next summer at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC).
XCTC is the Army National Guard’s program of record that enables brigade combat teams to achieve the trained platoon readiness necessary to deploy, fight, and win battles throughout the world. The three weeks provided Red Arrow Soldiers with exercises that tested their skills and grew their knowledge base as the brigade prepares for JRTC next year.
An estimated 450 people got a closer look at the Wisconsin Army National Guard during an “open house” June 3 at Warner Park. Visitors registered for a chance to win various prizes by completing a checklist of stations set up throughout the park. Stations included a rock-climbing wall, vehicle displays, an Army Combat Fitness Test demonstration, an Army field kitchen unit which made maple bacon donuts from scratch, a demonstration of the 54th Civil Support Team’s Talon IV unmanned robot, an ice cream booth manned by the Service Member Support Division, a performance by the 132nd Army Band and a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter arrival.
“We were able to showcase some of the latest National Guard equipment and connect with community members and leaders,” said Lt. Col. Seth Kaste, commander of the Wisconsin National Guard’s 54th Civil Support Team and former commander of the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s Recruiting and Retention Battalion. He said the purpose of the open house was to revitalize the Wisconsin Army National Guard as the “hometown Guard,” and the state’s first military responder in times of emergency.
A grand opening was held Sept. 28 for a $15 million renovation project at the headquarters armory of the 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry in Appleton, Wisconsin. The 18-month project nearly doubled the available floor space and addressed critical needs such as administrative offices, increased storage, training resources and parking.
The renovated facility also is a testament to the battalion’s heritage. A glass floor near the entrance displays masonry from the unit’s 1904 armory on College Avenue, and display cases show artifacts dating back to the Civil War, and the famed Black Hats of the Iron Brigade.
Brig. Gen. Matthew Strub, Wisconsin’s deputy adjutant general for Army, became the deputy commanding general for the National Guard at the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker, Alabama in March. Known as a dual-hat assignment, Strub continues in his primary responsibility to the Wisconsin Army National Guard, while also advocating for the entire National Guard concerning aviation matters.
Col. Matthew Beilfuss was promoted to the rank of brigadier general July 6 and succeeded Brig. Gen. Timothy Covington as Wisconsin’s deputy adjutant general for Civil Support.
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Charles Mattison succeeded Chief Warrant Officer 5 Troy Bittner as the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s state command chief warrant officer March 11. In that duty, Mattison advises state leadership on all matters pertaining to warrant officers in the Wisconsin Army National Guard. He was promoted to Chief Warrant Officer 5 July 12.
Three Wisconsin Army National Guard major subordinate commands changed leadership in 2023. Col. Matthew Elder succeeded Col. Jeffrey Alston as commander of the 32nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team during an Aug. 6 ceremony. Lt. Col. Bennington traded battalion command for command of the 426th Regiment, a regional training institute, during an Oct. 14 ceremony. Bennington followed Col. Paul Gapinski, who took command of the 157th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade Nov. 4. Gapinski succeeded Col. Eric Leckel, who led an element of the brigade during its deployment to the Horn of Africa.
The Wisconsin Army National Guard inducted 1st Lt. Thomas E. Wortham IV into its Hall of Honor during an Oct. 27 ceremony. Wortham was a combat veteran as well as a member of the Chicago Police Department, president of the Cole Park Advisory Council in Chicago, vice president of the Chicago Chapter of the Men of Iota group, and an active member of the Project Jeremiah youth mentoring group. He was tragically killed in Chicago in 2010 fighting off an armed robbery attempt, and the Wisconsin National Guard and the Chicago Police Department each developed an award to honor his legacy.
The Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy, which began in 1998, graduated its 50th and 51st classes in 2023. Guard Challenge Academy is a two-part 17-month voluntary program for youth ages 16 years nine months through 18. The first part is a 22-week residential phase at the Academy’s Fort McCoy campus.
In a structured, military-styled environment, youth develop the courage to change, unlearn bad habits and cultivate skills and attitudes to help them succeed, as well as earn their high school equivalency diploma (HSED) and a minimum of seven free, fully transferable college credits.
“When candidates arrive here at the Challenge Academy, opportunities abound,” said Edwin Maciosek, Wisconsin Challenge Academy commandant. “We teach, coach and mentor. We afford them the opportunity to develop numerous soft skills that employers are looking for. Through our military model, cadets are taught teamwork, resilience, self-control, listening skills and time management — to name a few.”
The Challenge Academy reshapes the lives of at-risk students who are not on track to graduate high school on time. Students must not be currently charged, indicted or convicted of a felony — as a juvenile or an adult. Students must reside in Wisconsin and be a legal U.S. resident, willing to be free from illegal drugs and substances.