National Guard Wraps Up Dynamic 2023
by U.S. Air Force MSgt. Erich Smith
National Guard Bureau
December 31, 2023
As December draws to a close, the National Guard wraps up a dynamic year, leaving an indelible mark supporting the warfighter and protecting communities. From fortifying a world-leading state partnership program to pioneering advancements in cyber and space operations, the nation’s oldest military organization shined as a trailblazer in 2023.
The Air National Guard's key role in Air Defender 2023 was a notable example. The German-led multinational exercise showcased NATO's defensive capabilities and marked the largest air force redeployment exercise since NATO's inception.
"Moving 100 aircraft over the ocean in a matter of four flying days is a monumental feat," said Air Force Maj. Brandyn Dietman, with the Wisconsin Air National Guard's 128th Air Refueling Wing, which was one of several units providing an "air bridge" to Germany where the exercise primarily occurred.
The notable efforts of more than 25,000 Guard members deployed during the year reflect what Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, cites as a testament to the Guard's inherent value as a member of the Joint Force and integral part of U.S. military might.
"As a combat reserve of the Army and the Air Force, our Soldiers and Airmen are built to fight our nation's wars," said Hokanson. "It's our primary mission – our reason for existing."
This also means, he said, the Guard is equally adept at responding to natural disasters and emergencies on the home front, citing nearly 400 domestic operation responses in 2023.
Hokanson underlined the interconnectedness of Guard federal and state missions, stating, "It is the manning, training and equipping for combat that allows us also to serve our communities in their time of need."
One of those communities was Lahaina, Maui, where the Guard conducted aerial water drops, search and recovery efforts, and assisted local law enforcement during destructive wildfires.
Hawaii Army National Guard Soldier Spc. Kaimana McBrayer emphasized the personal connection, being embedded in the affected community.
"It's unreal, especially as a Hawaiian, because we have a special connection to the land and the people – so this hits close to home," said McBrayer, whose unit had just completed a warfare exercise before being mobilized to respond to the disaster.
Earlier in the year, Senior Enlisted Advisor Tony Whitehead, the National Guard's top enlisted leader, witnessed firsthand the operational readiness of Hawaii Guard members.
"Some of us are built for training, and others are built for execution," he said. "When we find out that we can do both, we find out what our Soldiers and Airmen are made of. I am proud to see the Guardsmen of the Hawaii National Guard can do both."
The Guard also responded to Rhode Island, Louisiana, and Wisconsin wildfires.
Additionally, Guard members played a crucial role in responding to Hurricane Idalia on Florida's Gulf Coast, activating about 6,500 Guard members.
Several air assets were sent to the Sunshine State from Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee Guard units. Some Georgia, North and South Carolina Guard members were also on duty, focusing on search and rescue, clearing roads of debris, and assessing damage caused by the storm.
In February, the Ohio National Guard and West Virginia National Guard swiftly responded to a hazardous materials train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, highlighting the Guard's unique capability in responding to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear emergencies.
"Our team members are highly trained for these exact types of situations, and we are proud to assist our neighbors in Ohio," said Lt. Col. Jerry Floyd, West Virginia Army National Guard's 35th Civil Support Team commander.
In late May, Typhoon Mawar wreaked havoc on Guam, a 210-square-mile American territory with a population of nearly 180,000, also serving as a strategic focal point in the Indo-Pacific Command.
"I knew immediately after the typhoon [hit], and after seeing all the damage, that I needed to help out," said Spc. Alora Finey, a combat medic with the Guam Army National Guard. "I wanted to help out."
Guard members quickly took action, setting up traffic control points, establishing collection points for debris and distributing emergency commodities to assist the affected community.
As Mawar made landfall, Guam faced an additional challenge as its telecommunication system was targeted by a cyber code originating from China. Two months later, the Guam National Guard convened a conference attended by several U.S. agencies, emphasizing the critical need for building and maintaining a robust cybersecurity program.
Army Lt. Col. Bumjin Park, the chief information officer for the Guam Guard, emphasized the importance of relationships in homeland defense and integrated deterrence.
"It starts with relationships, and the human element, like partnerships, provides a strong front against any adversary," he said.
In Estonia, the Maryland Air National Guard collaborated with the nation's armed forces to build an information-sharing platform, enhancing defense against cyber threats.
"The work we are doing now will help the United States and our allies exchange cyber information efficiently and effectively during peacetime or active cyber threats," said Lt. Col. Charles Gruver, an operations director with the Maryland Air Guard's 275th Cyberspace Operation Group.
This effort was part of the Department of Defense's State Partnership Program, where Guard elements partner with nations globally for military-to-military applications and homeland security training.
In July, the Guard celebrated the program's 30th anniversary, adding four countries and bringing the total to 100 partner nations and 88 partnerships in 2023.
Retired Gen. Mark Milley, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, commended the SPP as a pivotal relationship builder among like-minded countries, "working together for democratic ideals, self-determination, and the rule of law."
"We've seen the richness of these relationships develop through the State Partnership Program, and they play a very large role in world crisis," Milley said.
Washington National Guard members participated in Cobra Gold, a Thailand-based exercise focusing on the shared understanding of systems and collaboration in responding to natural disasters in March.
Warrant Officer Kristen Retherford, a decontamination adviser with the Washington Guard's 10th Homeland Response Force, said training among nations is critical because natural disasters are increasing.
"We have to get used to helping each other and responding to [potential disasters], so we all have a shared understanding of the system and how to work together," she said.
Similarly, the New Jersey National Guard trained with Albania's armed forces, focusing on tactical combat casualty care, care under fire, and treatment of combat injuries.
Spc. Samanath Fernandez from the New Jersey Guard highlighted the strengthening of relationships and expressed anticipation for future missions.
"Through this trip, we were able to hone our skills as instructors and strengthen our relationships with our Albanian counterparts,” she said. “Their hospitality and openness to share ideas is remarkable, and we look forward to future missions together."
In October, Gen. Daniel Hokanson traveled to Sweden to discuss its prospects of joining the SPP following its NATO bid, emphasizing the importance of learning from each other, especially in the cyber and space domains.
Meanwhile, the Guard continued its critical role in space operations. In August, the Ohio National Guard's 178th Wing hosted exercise Vulcan Guard, incorporating diverse space weapons systems in realistic scenarios.
Defense officials credit the Guard with supplying 60 percent of all space electromagnetic warfare capability to the Space Force's Space Operations Command.
Given the high demand for unfettered access to space for combatant commanders, space-based units like the Florida Air National Guard's 114th Electromagnetic Warfare Squadron conducted Exercise ThunderMoose in Maine during the summer.
The exercise showcased the ability to airlift a new electromagnetic warfare system while establishing a base location, made possible by the expertise of satellite communications, radio frequency, intelligence, security, and aerospace ground equipment specialists.
"This is about continuing to make the connections with each other, learning from each other, understanding the problems that we face so we can help each other as Guard members," said Lt. Col. Anthony Surman, the operations officer for the 114th EWS, adding the exercise showed how "integrated Guard Airmen can execute space electromagnetic warfare missions."
During a visit to the New York Air National Guard's 222nd Command and Control Squadron, Air Force Maj. Gen. Edward Vaughan, director of space operations for the National Guard Bureau, highlighted how high-tech civilian jobs seamlessly translate into Guard roles.
"More than half of the squadron members hold civilian employment in the intelligence community or with private sector space contractors," said Vaughn. "This provides high-quality expertise and readiness to deter or fight in the next war."
The year also commemorated exceptional acts of service from Guard Members, such as Air Force Maj. Katie Lunning, the first Air National Guard flight nurse to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross for her actions during Operations Allies Refuge and the evacuation of Kabul.
Lunning's civilian Intensive Care Unit nursing skills complemented her role as a Critical Care Air Transport nurse, resulting in lifesaving actions for 22 casualties while operating under continued small-arms fire and the possible threat of a second suicide bombing.
Reflecting on Lunning's dual role as a civilian nurse manager for a VA hospital and her voluntary deployment in support of OAR, Lt. Gen. Michael Loh, director of the Air National Guard, emphasized, "The uniqueness of the Guard is that Citizen-Airmen serve both their nation and their communities. That is exactly what Katie does."
Army Guard Soldiers demonstrated their exceptional skills in tactical competitions, securing victories in prominent events such as the 2023 International Sniper Competition and the U.S. Army "All Army" Small Arms Championships.
On the Air side, Airmen from New England achieved remarkable success in the William Tell 2023 Competition, dominating nearly half of all categories. The 158th Fighter Wing of Vermont emerged victorious in the Top F-35 Lightening II Individual Superior Performer and Top F-35 Wing categories. At the same time, the 104th Fighter Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard claimed the equivalent honors for the F-15 Eagle.
As the year concluded, the Alaska National Guard continued a 68-year-old tradition: Operation Santa Claus, spreading holiday cheer and gifts to children in remote communities using air assets, underscoring the invaluable relationship between the Guard and the communities it serves.
Through consistent improvement in recruiting new members and achieving historically high retention levels, the National Guard’s top officer emphasized that now is not the time for the nation's oldest military organization to become complacent amidst the looming challenges of 2024.
Comprising 20 percent of the Joint Force and continuing its service across nearly every zip code in America, Hokanson added the organization's success would continue to be defined by its people – the 430,000 Guard members who stand "Always Ready, Always There."
"We are the nexus of our nation's defense strategy,” he said. “We need to tell our story."
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