From pandemic response to Washington: Wisconsin National Guard steps up to ‘absolutely incredible and unprecedented year’

Pandemic response 'largest sustained domestic mobilization in WING history'

MADISON, Wis. – When duty calls, the Wisconsin National Guard answers.

Those calls have been demanding and frequent over the past year, taking service members away from their civilian jobs, education and families to bring them to the frontlines of not only the pandemic response, but to elections, protests and unrest.

“I don’t know that I could’ve imagined quite the scenario that’s played out,” Lt. Col. Matt McDonald said. “We ask a lot of our force and that’s no surprise, no secret.”

McDonald’s 20 years with the Wisconsin National Guard have been filled with missions close to home and abroad.

Matt McDonald

McDonald’s platoon in Diyala, Iraq in 2005

“We are a flexible, agile force,” he said.

He describes this past year about the same as the rest of us.

“I think the buzzword we’re all accustomed to is unprecedented,” McDonald said. “The demand for National Guard to do things that we traditionally have not done in terms of state active duty has been incredible.”

“This past year was very different,” agreed Maj. Gretel Weiskopf, who didn’t expect to plan a pandemic response, either.

From testing to vaccinations: the pandemic response

“A unique part of this opportunity is to see everyone stepping into a new role and coming together to work in this new capacity,” Weiskopf said. “As a task force commander, we’ve had soldiers all over the state working full time in Wisconsin in support of COVID operations. (It) has been eye-opening, but also challenging and rewarding all at the same time.”

She said part of the challenge lies in Guard members being away from families for months at a time, but said resources such as chaplains are available, and service members can request to come off a mission if need be.

“That’s absolutely OK,” Weiskopf said. “We’re happy they were here as long as they could.”

The National Guard has helped with testing operations from the pandemic’s start and members are now assisting with vaccination efforts. They’re building up to 17 mobile vaccination teams to help with logistics across Wisconsin.

Guard pandemic response

Photo Courtesy: Wisconsin National Guard

“That’s been fun to see,” Weiskopf said. “That’s what everyone’s looking forward to, is the proactive solution at the vaccine rollout.”

“The COVID response alone is the single largest sustained domestic mobilization in Wisconsin National Guard history,” Maj. Joe Trovato, a spokesperson for WING, said.

That’s just one piece of a year that kept piling on.

Civil unrest, election assistance

“Then you add in we’ve mobilized more than 5,000 troops for civil unrest response, whether that be here in Wisconsin communities or in Washington, D.C. or the State Capitol,” Trovato said. That includes in Madison, Milwaukee and Kenosha at the request of the Governor in the spring, summer and winter following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer and the Kenosha police shooting of Jacob Blake.

Trovato said the Guard also mobilized another 4,000 troops for support in four state elections on top of those deployed overseas. While service members likely didn’t participate in every type of mission, Trovato said the past 12 months still mark milestones for the Guard as a whole.

“It’s definitely been a heavy year for us,” he said.

The Guard’s soldiers and airmen have done the heavy-lifting, building to a mission to Washington, D.C. for President Joe Biden’s inauguration.

A historic mission to Washington

McDonald led 570 troops as the Joint Task Force Wisconsin commander to the country’s Capitol.

“It’s an adrenaline shot, I can tell you that,” McDonald said.  “Honestly, we were prepared for a worst case scenario, maybe a replay of the events of 6 January.”

WING in DC

Photo Courtesy: Wisconsin National Guard

He said their readiness put them front and center at the building’s perimeter, where they could catch glimpses of the official proceedings.

“I’m incredibly proud to be part of this organization at a pivotal time in national history,” McDonald said.

The Guard also served in a support role at the State Capitol the Sunday before inauguration.

Stepping back to reflect on the big picture

“It’s pretty incredible what they’ve been able to accomplish, truly,” Trovato said.

After stepping up, they can step back and reflect from the big picture standpoint.

“That’s when you really understand how much and how varied our response has been over the past year,” Weiskopf said.

That big picture couldn’t have been predicted or possible without everyone who made up the smaller pieces.

“It’s been an opportunity to innovate and learn and grow,” McDonald said. “We bring together that incredible diverse skillset, backgrounds and experiences. This is what citizen soldiers and airmen sign up to do.”

Looking ahead to the next year

When thinking about the 12 months to come, Weiskopf is dreaming of a return to barbeques and family gatherings.

“(I’m) very excited,” she said. “Hopeful.”

With a laugh, McDonald said he’s anticipating a year that’s “hopefully a little calmer than this past year, for sure.”

That means envisioning a return to normalcy post-COVID.

“We are ready. We are anticipating what vaccinations look like and how we can be part of that solution,” McDonald said. “The National Guard is certainly being proactive in envisioning its future.”