Just over one month and nearly 175 miles later, approximately 50 members of the Wisconsin Army National Guard's 724th Engineer Battalion have wrapped up work on a storm cleanup project - Operation Blue Ox - in Burnett and Douglas counties in northern Wisconsin.
"Those select Guard members of the 724th Engineer Battalion have done an outstanding job on a mission of great importance to the citizens of Burnett and Douglas counties," Gov. Scott Walker said. "These highly skilled individuals performed a valuable service."
"I am very proud of the men and women of the 724th," said Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, adjutant general of Wisconsin. "They demonstrated the value the Wisconsin National Guard brings to both the state and the nation when we are called."
The Burnett County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution Oct. 20 thanking Dunbar and the Wisconsin National Guard for their response to the county's appeal for support.
Capt. Paul Cusick, commander of the 950th Engineer Company, 724th Engineer Battalion, said the mission went well.
"Soldiers want to serve," he said. "Helping out in their local community, that's what they thrived on. Whether abroad or at home, that's why they want to be here."
The northern Wisconsin Soldiers for this mission came from the 950th Engineer Company, 106th Engineer Team and the Forward Support Company - all subordinate units of the 724th Engineer Battalion.
Since Sept. 6, Guard members worked to clear branches and tree limbs from roadsides in Burnett and Douglas counties. The powerful July 1 storm toppled trees across 130,000 acres in six northern Wisconsin counties. The storm debris in the rights of ways posed a safety and fire hazard. Debris clearing efforts ended Oct. 7 with identified routes 100 percent complete. Equipment rented for this mission was cleaned and returned by Oct. 11.
The 950th specializes in route clearance, which in Iraq and Afghanistan means finding and removing roadside bombs and other hazards. Cutting and chipping trees blown down by strong winds, though seemingly safer, has its own dangers, Cusick warned.
"Tree operations is dangerous because when you are felling a tree that is under stress caused by winds, it's not very predictable which way a tree's going to fall or how it's going to react," he explained. "There's tension built up in the tree. It's not just a matter of pushing a tree this way - the tree's got a vote and it's going to fall whatever way it wants to."
Cusick said that much of the tension in the storm-toppled timber dissipated between the July 1 storm and the beginning of the Wisconsin Army National Guard cleanup project Sept. 6.
"Every tree was still a unique challenge," he said. Timber less than 18 inches in diameter was fed into wood chippers and dispersed beyond the ditch line. Timber too large for the chipper was cut into 100-inch lengths and left for local townships to remove.
Guard members received chain saw training from the Forest Industry Safety and Training Alliance (FISTA), and learned to safely operate large wood chippers and other heavy equipment. The unit had very few injuries to report during the mission. Some of the equipment used for this mission proved so helpful that it may be included in future civil support force packages.
The Soldiers were assembled into two work platoons, led by platoon leaders and platoon sergeants who recently returned from the 724th Engineer Battalion's Iraq deployment. Cusick said that deployment experience paid huge dividends for this mission.
"It was a leadership challenge to ensure guys were rested and did not fall into complacency," he said. "Engineer estimates, engineer recons, fuel operations, maintenance - it was all as much of a challenge as being downrange. These four guys had a high level of competence and they were still in the rhythm, that deployment atmosphere."
Cusick said platoon leadership frequently interacted with local officials who checked on the progress of the storm debris cleanup, drawing on skills honed overseas.
"Right now in the encounters you have in Afghanistan and Iraq, strategic objectives are being handled at the tactical level - platoon leader, platoon sergeant," he said. "When that local town chairman decides to stop by to make sure his objectives are being met, it's all the same."
Cusick praised the state Department of Corrections officials and inmates who supplied labor in the cleanup effort. The inmates, supervised by corrections officers, hauled wood out of the ditch line, and Guard members would then feed the wood into the wood chipper.
"Those guys worked their tail off," Cusick said of the inmates. "They wanted to be there. It allowed my guys to work more on the skilled labor side of things with the machines. It was just a win-win. From the officers down to the inmates, it was just one of the best experiences I think I've had."
Overall, Cusick said the experiences gained from this particular mission were invaluable, especially for a unit just returning from a deployment.
"The big thing moving forward from this year is putting the team back together," he said. "Seeing the mettle of the rear detachment Soldiers just put the 950th much further ahead. Imminent danger, key leader engagements, interagency coordination - it will be years before my unit gets the same level of training value as this mission had. It was phenomenal."
The Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers began the mission as an Innovative Readiness Training project, which allowed existing federal funds in the training budget to be used. The Department of Defense revoked its IRT approval Sept. 8, and Gov. Scott Walker placed the Soldiers on state active duty. Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, adjutant general of Wisconsin, engaged leaders at the National Guard Bureau to restore federal funding Sept. 9 via additional annual training orders.