By Joshua Cohen
Vermont National Guard Public Affairs
In 2021 the Vermont National Guard fully engaged both federal and state missions. Overseas deployments and Joint Task Force Coyote, a critical component of the State’s response to the COVID-19, resulted in a high operational tempo, one not experienced in past years.
A Capitol response amidst overseas deployments
Shortly after the events at the U.S. Capitol in January, approximately 100 Vermont National Guard Soldiers were placed on a no-notice, 48-hour emergency muster and deployed supporting Operation Capitol Response. Soldiers tasked with the mission came predominantly from 1st Squadron, 172nd Cavalry, 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Mountain), at the time a unit slated for an overseas deployment.
VTARNG 2021 Deployments
January: After a year of preparation, approximately 350 Vermont Guard Soldiers with the 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry (Mountain) departed for a mission overseas supporting U.S. Central Command. At the same time, approximately 35 Soldiers of the 172nd Law Enforcement Detachment transitioned to the Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, Romania, in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel under U.S. Central Command.
February: Approximately 350 Soldiers of 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry (Mountain); Golf Company, 186th Brigade Support Battalion; and Alpha Company, 572nd Brigade Engineer Battalion; deployed as Task Force Avalanche in support of Operation Spartan Shield, U.S. Central Command.
March: Approximately 120 Soldiers from Bravo Company, 572nd BEB; and Charlie Company, 3-172 IN (MTN); deployed in support of U.S. Africa Command as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. Approximately 60 Soldiers from Bravo Battery 1st Battalion, 101st Field Artillery Regiment followed, their mission involved support for Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.
May: Saw the departure of over 600 Vermont Guard Soldiers deployed to support federal missions with the U.S. European Command and Central Command. These included 95 Soldiers of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 86th IBCT (MTN), 195 Soldiers from 1-172nd CAV (MTN), and Delta Company, 186th BSB along with the 172nd Public Affairs Detachment.
Attending the 1-172 CAV (MTN) overseas departure ceremony, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders reminded Guard members of their role in national security. “I had the pleasure, and honor of meeting some of you in Washington D.C. where you came to make sure we brought about order for the inauguration of President Biden, and you did just that."
Directly recruiting women into combat units
While supporting Operation Capitol Response, the 1-172 CAV (MTN) made history back in Vermont with an authorization to recruit women directly into the unit. This accomplishment led to the Vermont National Guard becoming the first in the nation to open all combat roles within its organization to women.
Also of note, CSM Melinda Crosby assumed responsibility for the 186th BSB during a ceremony in December. The selection represents one of the first times a women has held such a position in the VTARNG.
Joint Task Force Coyote – Strategic National Stockpile – pandemic support to the State
While troops deployed to overseas locations, the Vermont Guard’s internal response to the COVID-19 pandemic continued in early January when 60 individuals from the 158th Medical Group received COVID-19 vaccinations.
Later, in September, Maj. Gen. Greg Knight, the Vermont adjutant general, required vaccination for all Guard members in accordance with Department of Defense policy.
In early March, the Guard’s support to the State’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic transitioned from testing. The new emphasis for Task Force Coyote involved providing vaccinations at pop-up clinics throughout the state. The Task Force, which consists of both Soldiers and Airmen began administering COVID-19 vaccinations to the 5-11 age group in November.
As COVID-19 vaccination levels increased, pandemic support missions at the National Strategic Stockpile shifted. In conjunction with Guard personnel reassembling, disassembling, and storing an emergency alternate healthcare facility used as a mass vaccination site, Soldiers and Airmen packaged and distributed Personal Protective Equipment, primarily to health facilities and schools. Guard members also assembled and shipped more than 500,000 COVID-19 sampling kits from the Strategic National Stockpile since they began operations in the summer of 2020.
Throughout the pandemic, Vermont Guard members assisted with voluntary COVID mapping efforts. After activation in support of the mission, Guard members quickly worked through an initial backlog of over 10,000 calls, according to Vermont Air National Guard Lt. Col. Daniel Rissacher, the officer in charge of the Voluntary COVID Mapping operation.
Provost Marshal Office
In 2021, VTNG established a Provost Marshal Office to improve communication with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies in instances involving Guard members.
The PMO is tasked to investigate allegations of misconduct by Vermont National Guard Soldiers and Airmen. The newly established office works with the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator and the Office of the Judge Advocate General. The PMO assists civilian law enforcement agencies and the National Guard Bureau Office of Complex Investigations as needed.
“Creating and staffing the Provost Marshal team took over a year, but now we have them, and they are making our systems better,” Knight said.
Vermont Guardsman receives highest non-combat decoration
This past year Sgt. 1st Class Dustin Dearborn, an instructor with the Army Mountain Warfare School received the Soldier’s Medal, one of the military’s highest honors, awarded only for acts of heroism not involving conflict with an armed enemy.
In February 2020 Dearborn and cadre of the AMWS responded to a call to assist in the rescue of two lost skiers in deteriorating weather near Stowe Mountain.
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott presented Dearborn with the award, stating, “While most of us run from danger or a problem, I’ve always been in awe of those who step up and run towards it. Sergeant Dearborn’s actions last year are an incredible example of this, and that’s why we’re here today.”
While Dearborn received the Soldier’s Medal, he did not act alone. Sgt. 1st Class Nicholas Ash, a fellow mountain warfare instructor, accompanied Dearborn during the rescue operation.
National Guard Bureau assessment released
In early August, the Vermont National Guard publicly released a 113-page assessment of the VTNG command climate and systems. Specifically requested by Knight, the National Guard Bureau’s Office of Complex Investigations prepared the report.
The assessment included results of a statewide VTNG command climate survey, collection and analysis of relevant documents, on-site interviews of complainants and subject matter experts, site assessment visits, and sensing sessions with VTNG members.
The NGB Assessment Team provided findings and recommendations in the areas of sexual assault and harassment prevention and response; equal employment opportunity; personnel management; disciplinary actions; as well as command climate, culture, and accountability.
The report states, “The overall climate within the Vermont National Guard is positive. With some exceptions, service members generally reported confidence and trust in their immediate leaders, which has resulted in high retention across the force.”
According to Knight, the results did not come as a surprise. “As suspected, the assessment found the VTNG is healthy and performing at a very high level, the VTNG does a lot right, I don’t have to look very far in this organization to find a lot of goodness, and to improve we must shine a light on our deficiencies and attack them with purpose, this assessment will help us do just that.”
In part to increase engagement with the community, the past year also saw Vermont National Guard initiate a public tour program for the Ethan Allen Firing Range and 158th Fighter Wing.
The Vermont Guard also expanded a civilian honorary commander program in 2021. The program aims to facilitate expanded relations between the Guard and the community through influential business and civic leaders who volunteer and are approved for honorary commander positions.
State Partnership Programs expanded
2021 will serve as a historic marker for the Vermont National Guard and the Republic of Austria. Both entities signed on to the agreement in late October as part of the National Guard State Partnership Program.
The event with Austria marks the Vermont Guard’s third such partnership along with The Republic of Senegal in 2008 and with North Macedonia, established in 1993.
The State Partnership Program links a state National Guard with a partner nation's military, security forces, and disaster response organizations in a cooperative, mutually beneficial relationship.
For instance, from July 11-21 a delegation of the Senegalese Fire Brigade visited Vermont for briefings and a showcase of National Guard and State emergency capabilities and equipment.
Later that month Knight made a reciprocal visit to Senegal along with a delegation where guard members participated in a medical readiness exercise.
In late May, Knight, accompanied by Vermont Lt. Gov. Molly Gray and Lindsay Kurrle, the state secretary of commerce and community development, on a visit to North Macedonia to discuss expanding the SPP into economic areas through a whole-of-government approach.
Following the Guard’s visit, Radmila Shekerinska, North Macedonia’s defence minister, made a reciprocal visit to Vermont for further discussions on increased economic cooperation.
Later in November, a team of Vermont National Guard IT experts participated in the joint A5 Cyber Mission which took place in Garmish, Germany, with counterparts from North Macedonia.
As 2021 draws to a close, Vermont Army National Guard soldiers have begun to return from overseas deployments. From Dec. 1-10, 300 Guard personnel returned to the U.S. The remainder of approximately 950 deployed troops will end their overseas missions in 2022.
As deployed units return, Vermont National Guard biathletes are participating in Olympic trials for the U.S. Biathlon team ahead of expected participation in the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games.
Vermont Air National Guard highlights
After taking delivery of the 20th and final F-35A Lightning II in late 2020, the Vermont Air National Guard has been busy integrating the new aircraft and completing all conversion requirements.
The Air Guard kicked off 2021 by sending over 150 Airmen, aircraft, and support equipment to Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. During the two-week training evolution, aircrews verified weapon system performance and reliability as part of the training. In March, the 158th Fighter Wing welcomed home Maj. Howard Shaner, the first Air Guard F-35A pilot to graduate from the U.S. Air Force Weapons School.
In April, aircraft and personnel assigned to the 134th Fighter Squadron and the 158th Maintenance Group traveled to the 48th Fighter Wing, Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England.
Staff from the F-35 Joint Program Office and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory collected acoustic and bioenvironmental data in protective aircraft shelters used for the F-35A Lightning II.
The 158th Fighter Wing participated in Red Flag, a three-week training evolution in July designed to provide aircrew and operators with a realistic training environment. The event marked the first time two F35A squadrons participated jointly.
In another first for the 158th Fighter Wing, three female Airmen received top honors in the Vermont Air National Guard annual Airman of the Year awards. Senior Airman Sara Basiliere, Tech. Sgt. Jessica Mitchell and Master Sgt. Mary Jane Palumbo each received the awards.
The 158th Fire Department has also been busy. In late March, the department responded to a civilian aircraft fire on a runway of Burlington International Airport.
In July, they responded to a fire in a small apartment in Winooski. The department routinely provides mutual aid to surrounding towns, including 214 responses for fire, medical and other emergencies in 2021.
Mid-2021 saw over 80 Vermont Air Guard personnel return to the U.S. from various overseas deployments that began in the fall of 2020.
By the end of 2021, the Vermont Air Guard will become the first fully operational Air National Guard unit with the F-35A Lightning II mission.