National Guard troops return from Afghanistan amid COVID-19 operations

    Brig. Gen. Joane Mathews, Wisconsin’s deputy adjutant general for Army, speaks March 12 to troops mobilizing for state active duty in response to the Wisconsin Department of Health Service’s request for assistance. The troops will be transporting 37 Wisconsin citizens who were aboard a cruise ship with confirmed cases of COVID-19 to their homes for self-quarantine once they arrive in Wisconsin. Wisconsin National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Alex Baum

    About 150 soldiers of the National Guard’s 1st Battalion 128 infantry, are returning from a nearly seven-month mission in Afghanistan. According to the Guard, their return marks a continued draw-down of troops headed to the embattled country, officials say. The war in Afghanistan, at 19 years, is America’s longest-running war. Some soldiers deployed there today were infants or not yet born when the 2001 World Trade Center attacks occurred.

    Normally the troops, who first arrived at Fort Hood, Texas, would enjoy a homecoming celebration with friends and family. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a ceremony wasn’t possible. Instead, troops were loaded onto buses headed for local armories in Eau Claire, Abbotsford, Menomonie, New Richmond, Rice Lake, Arcadia, Onalaska and River Falls. There, they will reunite with their families.

    Nearly 400 Wisconsin National Guard soldiers are considered “Red Arrow” troops, originally mobilized for an Afghan deployment in July 2019. This is considered a federal mission, and local Guard leadership are limited in revealing details about what the troops were doing.

    Although President Donald Trump campaigned on an Afghan pullout, he initiated a troop surge in late 2017. In early March, the release of the “Afghanistan Papers,” a journalistic investigation, revealed officials misled the public about making progress in the war. Many of the things the investigation found, such as a lack of a clear vision for what progress in the war looked like, were also covered in the 2013 documentary This Is What Winning Looks Like.

    Over 2,000 American troops have died in Afghanistan, and over 19,000 have been maimed and wounded. It’s generally accepted that more private military contractors have died in the war than uniformed American forces, though exact numbers can be elusive.

    Some 250 soldiers from the returning battalion will remain in Afghanistan. According to a National Guard press release, approximately 150 additional troops of the 829 Engineer Company are scattered throughout the Middle East and Afghanistan. The 924 Engineer Facilities Detachment and the 1967 Contracting Team also mobilized for the Horn of Africa and a Kuwait mission in January.

    About 160 Wisconsin National Guard are also deployed in Ukraine as part of a Joint Multinational Training Group. The soldiers returning home, however, may still find themselves called to duty on the home front. Over 2,400 National Guard members were mobilized to serve as poll workers for Wisconsin’s controversial April 7 election. In general, the Guard is ramping up its mission to aid in the state’s response to COVID-19.

    Multiple National Guard teams are at Wisconsin’s State Fair Park, having recently completed setting up an alternate care facility there after two weeks of work. They remain on-site, with 60 personnel now preparing to serve as patient care assistants, supply specialists, as well as other miscellaneous tasks. More personnel will be needed to fully man the State Fair Park facility. But the facility will not be fully staffed by the National Guard, which Guard leaders have said will represent “only a fraction of the overall effort.”

    “We are helping organize the shipments that are coming into the warehouse here, and then we are helping bring all the material into setting up the rooms,” said Sgt. Andrew Minster, a medic assigned to the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry. “I chose to enlist in the National Guard because this is what I wanted to do – to help my community out and help the state out.”

    National Guard troops are also collecting COVID-19 samples inside the Milwaukee County House Of Corrections (HOC). Numerous people incarcerated there have tested positive for the virus, raising concerns among their loved ones. Another 250 troops will be needed in the coming weeks to support other specimen sample collection teams.

    Advocates and activists have expressed concern of the potential use of National Guard in correctional facilities to supplement correctional officer staff who fall ill. This has been ill-received among activists pushing to reduce the prison population, some of whom are U.S. veterans themselves.

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    Separately, 30 more troops are serving at a Milwaukee County-run self-isolation facility. Others are supporting the Dane County Coroner’s Office’s mortuary affairs operations. Previously, troops have provided specimen collection efforts in a Sheboygan senior living facility, and transported Wisconsinites returning from  quarantine aboard cruise ships.

    To date, over 6,000 people in Wisconsin have tested positive for COVID-19 in Wisconsin. Over 1,400 people have been hospitalized, and, statewide, families are mourning the deaths of 281 people. Although over 2,600 people have tested positive in Milwaukee County, rural counties like Brown, Waukesha and others are also hard hit.

    Isiah Holmes
    Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, and other outlets.