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Wisconsin National Guard sees largest and longest domestic deployment in history

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Between the coronavirus response, election worker shortages and civil unrest in cities across the state, thousands of National Guardsmen and women have been called to service this year. According to the Guard, it's one of the largest and longest domestic deployments in Wisconsin's history.

These citizen soldiers work a dual mission responding to emergencies at the governor's request and supporting federal missions overseas. When they're not on duty though, soldiers live and work in their own communities.

For John Morgen, a typical spring means finishing his semester at Neenah High School and coaching the track team to a few wins.

When coronavirus hit, he had to put on a different uniform.

"I first got the phone call in mid-March," he said.

Col. Morgen had to report to the Joint Task Force Headquarters in Madison, where he's served for the past three and a half months. From there he's helping lead thousands of guardsmen and women through the coronavirus response statewide.

"Somedays I feel like there's a lot of hypothetical forest fires that we need to manage and deal with," he said.

The guard's response is multi-pronged with teams handling specimen collection, contract tracing, managing staff shortages and responding to any other state emergencies that may arise.

"Many of them thought that they'd be finished by now and we continue to ask them to stay on and do more," Morgen said.

According to spokesman, Captain Joe Trovato, at the height of the pandemic, the guard mobilized 1400 soldiers to help with testing, now that number is down to about 1200 split among 26 teams. An additional 2400 guardsmen and women handled the polls at the April 7 and May 12 elections.

"It has been an incredible herculean lift to support all of these different mission requests that we've had in the Wisconsin National Guard," he said.

Even as the pandemic response seemed to pare down, Trovato said soldiers had to respond to another mission.

"We had mobilized an additional 1500 troops to state active duty during the height of the civil unrest at the later part of may and into June across five Wisconsin cities," he said.

Morgen said guard members train for long difficult deployments but usually those are farther from home.

"On a normal deployment overseas, you feel like you know everything back home is fine and in this case that's just not the case," he said. "Those conversations would take place in maybe a place like Iraq but I never really associated it with that taking place in Wisconsin."

To help guardsmen cope with the difficult and longer-than-expected mission, Trovato said the guard has mobilized it's chaplains and is paying close attention to morale.

"The mental resilience of our troops is something that we take very seriously because we do recognize that we've been asking a lot of them. Our state has been asking a lot of them," he said.

For a lot of troops however, the close-to-home mission brings motivation in and of itself.

"So many of them have remarked about how they feel like this mission has given them greater fulfillment because their efforts are really contributing directly to the community that they grew up in," Morgen said.

He said the purpose of the National Guard is to serve the state of Wisconsin and this year has given his fellow soldiers a unique opportunity to see the impact their work is making in their own neighborhoods.

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Michelle Alfini

Reporter, WKOW

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