From Nebraska wildfires to hotspots in Afghanistan, the Nebraska National Guard carries on a mission that touches lives across the globe.And it all began ten years ago on March 7, 2003.
"Welcome to Grand Island," was what Major Dustin Wilkie heard when he and his unit set down in Grand Island for the first time.
Ten years after the guard selected a site for its Army Aviation Support Facility, their mission remains as relevant as ever. "Not going anywhere anytime soon," Wilkie said. He is facility commander for a 45,000 square foot hangar. He said, "We are often the envy of other units that come from around the country. When they stop through, definitely first class facility for our soldiers here." The Chinooks are the big birds. They added new Lakota choppers last year and will add more new aircraft this spring.
Governor Dave Heineman said that combination brings versatility. He said, "Particularly with flooding, that was two years ago. Last year with drought, we assisted with firefighting efforts across north central, northwest Nebraska." They also fulfill military missions. Wilkie said, "We've deployed Chinooks to the war fight in Afghanistan, returned last year, and overlapping time we did a peacekeeping mission for headquarters in Kosovo."
Wilkie himself was deployed to Kosovo.
Those deployed to Afghanistan faced enemy fire. One Nebraska soldier, Patrick Hamburger, gave his life in service to his country in August of 2011 when a Chinook was shot down.
Soldiers say their service does not go unnoticed, saying they appreciate the community's support.
"We're embedded in the community here," Wilkie said. "Most of us are native Nebraskans. Got folks that commute from all the tri–cities and all the towns around."
The National Guard's showing its commitment to the future, with construction of a $20 million Readiness Center, to replace the old armory in Grand Island.
Wilkie said, "It's a great facility for us. We're very excited to have that." Wilkie prepped his chopper March 7, 2003 not knowing if he was going to Kearney or Grand Island.
Then word came from his superiors. Then-Gov. Mike Johanns and National Guard Commander Gen. Roger Lempke chose Grand Island.
That memory remains fresh, but there's also a sense they've been at home in central Nebraska from day one. "It's a great place to do our jobs," Wilkie said.
Construction for the new building is on schedule, and projected to open about a year from now.