By Barbara Wilson, Illinois National Guard Public Affairs Office
The Department of Illinois Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) honored the more than 13,000 members of the Illinois National Guard (ILNG) as the organization’s 2021 Hometown Heroes of the Year at its 100th annual State Convention June 11 in Springfield, Illinois.
“Each one of the men and women who responded to our missions in 2020 and 2021 got a call, they packed their bags, put on their uniforms, laced up their boots really tight and responded to the call of not only their nation, but their state and community. But every one of them volunteered to go,” said Maj. Gen. Rich Neely, of Springfield, the Adjutant General of Illinois and Commander of the Illinois National Guard. “It is a real honor to be here as the Adjutant General and the Commander of the Illinois National Guard to receive this award honoring their outstanding performance.”
VFW State Commander Laurie Emmer, of Sycamore, highlighted the efforts of the ILNG prior to presenting the award.
“In early 2020, when businesses changed how they serve the public and people started working from home, the Illinois National Guard was activated to assist in the state’s COVID-19 response operations,” she said. “The men and women activated for this mission conducted hundreds of thousands COVID-19 tests, sorted and shipped personal protection equipment to locations throughout Illinois and performed admirably other duties asked of each of them. And if the pandemic wasn’t enough, they also responded to other domestic operations in addition to overseas missions. They lived up to the National Guard motto ‘Always Ready, Always There’.”
The ILNG was nominated for the award by VFW District 15 Commander Gary Fravel, of Thompsonville, a retired U.S. Army first sergeant, who outlined their achievements in the nomination letter. District 15 covers the lower 12 counties in Illinois. Approximately 13 VFW Posts are within the boundaries of the district.
“Those of us who served full time in the military trained for missions every day,” he said. “The Illinois National Guard doesn’t train every day and no one was prepared for the pandemic. In the past year and a half, they did what was asked of them and more. They truly deserve to be honored.”
Emmer agreed with Fravel’s nomination.
“In the past year the Illinois National Guard has supported domestic operations, and conducted overseas missions,” she said. “From early on in the pandemic when they were asked to start mass testing sites to now as they are assisting at mass vaccination sites, our brothers- and sisters-in-arms, really our friends and neighbors, have proven time and time again, they are indeed hometown heroes.”
Neely said it was the young enlisted leaders who are the key to the ILNG’s success.
“These young enlisted leaders are truly the reason we are so successful,” he told the delegates of the VFW and its Auxiliary. “They are the backbone of every military branch of service. They really are the best of what America has to offer.”
Neely said the long list of missions in which the ILNG has participated in during the past year and a half make this time truly historic.
“When you look at the mobilization numbers at this level for these operations, you have to go back to World War II to see such a significant level,” he said. “This is really significant to note in looking back at the past twenty years in the Global War on Terrorism.”
Neely called 2020 and 2021 an extraordinary effort by the ILNG.
“We were asked why other states weren’t coming in to help with the COVID-19 response operations,” he said. “Other states couldn’t come to Illinois to support us because every state was struggling. While a lot of our volunteers were at home shut in, our Airmen and Soldiers went into the pandemic and in doing so, faced a lot of unknowns.”
“The 13,000 men and women who make up the Illinois National Guard may have joined for different reasons, but each share a common thread – when asked by their community, state and nation, each left their jobs, schools, and their families to serve where needed,” Fravel said in his nomination. “It is because of their ability to adapt to any mission asked of them is what makes them heroes.”