National Guard unit ‘discreetly monitored’ Summerfest

By: - August 9, 2022 6:15 am
National Guard soldiers during the curfew in Wauwatosa during 2020. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

National Guard soldiers during the curfew in Wauwatosa during 2020. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

The over 445,000 people who flocked to Summerfest along Milwaukee’s lakefront were likely unaware that among them were soldiers from the National Guard’s 54th Civil Support Team (CST). A press release from the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs discloses that soldiers from the unit were “discreetly monitoring the large music festival for potential threats.”

“We primarily provide environmental monitoring unless something suspicious is found,” said Lt. Col. Matthew Kelly in the press release, who commands the 22-member full-time team of specialists, “and then we can go into actual characterization and identification of the threat, and figure out what we’re actually going to do next. We’ll do radiation monitoring, we can do air monitoring for toxic chemicals. That’s mainly what we do at those.”

The Madison-based unit consists of full time soldiers and airmen trained specifically for emergencies, terrorist events involving weapons of mass destruction, and toxic industrial chemicals or natural disasters. The 54th CST also conducts “passive and active monitoring, based on the venue and what they have been requested to provide,” the press release states. The unit also works closely with the Department of Homeland Security. Events like University of Wisconsin sports events, Green Bay Packers games, the Birkebeiner cross-country ski race in Hayward, and other events are also in their purview.

“During the election season we’re working a lot with Secret Service’s HAMMER [hazardous agent mitigation medical emergency response] team if the president is coming to Wisconsin — they usually request us to be on standby,” Kelly said. “We’ll slice off part of our 22-person team, send 4-5 personnel there with a vehicle to be able to respond. Usually for [presidential] visits they request us to bring our analytical lab, the mobile lab, so we’ll bring that as well for rapid identification.”

In order to conduct an operation, the 54th CST must receive an official request which must be authorized by Wisconsin’s adjutant general. The Milwaukee Police Department requested the unit’s support for Summerfest. At times, requests are granted in order to develop a relationship with a supporting agency. Captain Peter Vakos, the unit’s operations officer, said they support as many as 30 events yearly.

“We have a lot of different skill sets on the team,” Vakos said. “One of the things that supporting these events also does is it gives us experience on that equipment. Doing these steady-state events gives everyone that hands-on equipment time and training for that, and the environment we’re training in. We try to be a team of experts in our field.” Kelly went into more detail about some aspects of the deployment. “We get to work on not only prepping our equipment before we go, but the actual deployment — arriving on scene and setting everything up.” Kelly continued. “We usually do pre-event sweeps. We’ll load up our equipment and search, and then we’ll do interim sweeps. Occasionally we’ll get hits on our monitoring equipment, but when we go to investigate, say, for radiation, it will be a medical isotope where somebody recently got cancer treatment.”

Something as seemingly mundane as an unattended bag could be viewed as suspicious. Kelly noted that as in other situations, the Guard is not in charge and is operating on the request of another agency. “We might be the lead on going in and detecting materials, but we make recommendations and we carry out the guidance or orders of the incident commander,” said Kelly. “If it was a [weapon of mass destruction], the FBI would come in and provide guidance.” Members of the unit, which dates back to 1998, receive more than 650 hours of specialized training. “It’s probably the best job in the Guard,” Kelly said.

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.