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By Lt. Col. Bradford Leighton
Joint Force Headquarters - Illinois National Guard Public Affairs
On May 9, 1723 in the small village of Kaskaskia, Diron d’ Artaguiette, the Inspector of Troops for the French Commandant, drilled the first militia in the Illinois Country.
What is today known as the Illinois National Guard arose from this humble beginning. Then, as now, the Illinois National Guard was part of the community and drew its strength from the community. The National Guard is the oldest component of the U.S. military and the only military component with both state and federal missions.
The Illinois National Guard will celebrate its 300th year by commemorating significant dates in its history with communities across the state that share that history.
“We are uniquely tied to the Land of Lincoln,” said Maj. Gen. Rich Neely, the Adjutant General of Illinois and Commander of the Illinois National Guard. Even before Illinois became a state, these communities gathered for the common defense forming what would become today’s Illinois National Guard.
“Abraham Lincoln himself served in our ranks during the Black Hawk War years before he would serve as our Commander-in-Chief during the Civil War,” Neely said. According to Lincoln, being elected captain in the Illinois Militia was “a success which gave me more pleasure than any I have had since.”
“We are still developing leaders among the sons and daughters of Illinois. Our Soldiers and Airmen learn to be part of something larger than themselves. They learn to be part of a team. They learn about selfless service, commitment, discipline, and integrity,” Neely said.
In Illinois, Governor JB Pritzker is the Commander-in-Chief of the Illinois National Guard, but when placed on federal orders, President Joe Biden becomes the Commander-in-Chief as he is for the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and Space Force.
No matter who is the Commander-in-Chief, the history of the Illinois National Guard is part of the histories of the cities, towns and villages of Illinois.
For example, the history of the Southside of Chicago is intertwined with the history of the “Fighting” 8th Infantry Regiment, which fought against our enemies overseas in three wars and against racism and prejudice here at home. The small central Illinois town of Cerro Gordo got its name from Illinois National Guard Soldiers returning from the battle of Cerro Gordo in the Mexican-American War.
Lt. Marcellus Jones from the St. Charles-based 8th Cavalry Regiment fired the first shot at Gettysburg in the Civil War. The 106th Cavalry, based in Kewanee, rescued King Leopold of Belgium and his family in World War II. Units from across Illinois responded to communities all along the Mississippi during the Great Flood of 1993. When the Great Tri-State Tornado tore through Murphysboro in 1925, Illinois National Guard troops put aside their civilian lives to help save the lives of their fellow citizens. When the Quincy-based 126th Supply and Services Company returned from Vietnam, the community lined the streets to thank them and when the 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team returned to Illinois from Afghanistan in 2009, communities from Woodstock to Marion turned out in droves to thank the Soldiers for their service as they returned to their families, friends, schools and civilian employers.
Despite the shared history with communities across Illinois, many people – particularly young men and women - do not understand the dual state and federal mission of the Illinois National Guard, said Command Sgt. Maj. Dena Ballowe, the Senior Enlisted Advisor of the Illinois National Guard.
“The motto of the National Guard is ‘Always Ready, Always There,’ but to remain always ready as we have for the last 300 years, we need to interest people in National Guard service,” Ballowe said. “We need to educate them on the commitments as well as the many great state and federal benefits that are available only through the Illinois National Guard. Of course, there is the 100 percent tuition waiver at any state college or university. This is a benefit that is unique to Illinois – one that many other states do not offer. There’s also the job skills training, VA home loans, the opportunities to travel, an extra paycheck, and many other tangible benefits. But beyond that are intangibles such being part of a team and learning to be a leader.”
Ballowe said that you don’t need to be captain of the football team to be successful in the Illinois National Guard. “A common refrain among many of our Soldiers and Airmen is that their friends and families couldn’t really picture them in the military – that they weren’t the ‘military-type’ – and then they end up serving 10, 20, 30-years in the Illinois National Guard.”
People lead successful civilian careers and successful military careers concurrently, Ballowe said. “Most often your military education and experience enhances your civilian career and vice versa. The Illinois National Guard opens a world of experience all while serving most of your time right here in Illinois.”