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NEWS | May 8, 2023

Illinois National Guard Celebrates 300th Birthday with Springfield Events

By Barbara Wilson, Illinois National Guard Public Affairs Office

It was a birthday 300 years in the making.

The Illinois National Guard celebrated the milestone anniversary during a full day of events in Springfield, May 6, with international partners from Australia, Belgium, and Poland, as well as other invited guests.

Although weather put a damper on some of the outdoor events, in true military fashion the Illinois National Guard adapted, improvised, and overcame, and moved some of the events indoors.

The day-long events started with a complete historic timeline of military uniforms and equipment at the Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield and ended with an invitation-only birthday gala at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Events moved downtown Springfield to the area around Union Park, where military vehicles were set up for display. Weather forced the two afternoon ceremonies honoring the shared history of the Illinois National Guard and the Kingdom of Belgium, which marked the anniversary of the Illinois National Guard rescuing King Leopold III from German Nazis in World War II, and later the shared history of the Illinois National Guard and the Australian military during the Battle of Hamel on July 4, 1918 in World War I, which marked the first time U.S. military forces fought alongside Australian military forces.

“It is an honor to celebrate our shared history with our international partners,” said Maj. Gen. Rodney Boyd, Assistant Adjutant General – Army and Commander of the Illinois Army National Guard. “These friendships have endured for so many years, and these partnerships have proven to be incredibly beneficial relationships for all.”

Boyd said marking the 300th anniversary gives Illinois National Guard members a moment to reflect and celebrate, but it shouldn’t stop there.

“This should also be a moment where we consider the future and how we intend to shape it,” he said. “We must leverage our historical track-record of churning out talented leaders, building strong multinational partnerships, and helping our friends and neighbors to solve immediate and future challenges.”

The afternoon’s events culminated in a concert performed by the Air National Guard Band of the Midwest, based at Peoria, Illinois, and a special birthday cake cutting ceremony.

“300 years! Our State, our communities, and our Illinois National Guard look a lot different today than 300-years ago, but there is a lot that hasn’t changed over this time,” said Boyd. “The first units were comprised of local farmers, fur trappers, blacksmiths, craftsmen, and other occupations who gathered and trained in communities across the Illinois territory. The civilian occupations of our Guard members are different today, but their readiness to set aside civilian careers and take up a post to protect their neighbors remains the same.”

Boyd said the Illinois National Guard’s history is interwoven with the history of large and small communities throughout the state and has a great impact in the history of the United States. 

“Most of us know 23-year-old Abraham Lincoln served as a Captain in the Illinois Militia during the Black Hawk War, many years before he served as commander-in-chief, leading our nation during the Civil War,” he said. “Years later when he was President, he told a group of lawmakers that being elected captain in the Illinois Militia was ‘a success which gave me more pleasure than any I have had since.’”

Boyd said during his service in the Black Hawk War, Lincoln learned to be a leader, and he gained first-hand experience of the hardships of a Soldiers’ daily life. 

But many more careers were impacted by serving in the Illinois Militia and Illinois National Guard. The practical, hands-on education in leadership learned through service in the Illinois Militia and Illinois National Guard propelled the careers of eight future governors, more than a dozen future federal legislators, three future U.S. Ambassadors, hundreds of judges, mayors, police and fire chiefs, and thousands of small business owners.

“The Illinois National Guard’s history right here in Springfield is amazing. We mustered for two wars, the Spanish-American War and World War One, right at the State Fairgrounds,” he said. “Illinois National Guard Soldiers and Airmen going back hundreds of years – Veterans of this nation’s wars – are buried in Camp Butler National Cemetery and near Lincoln in Oak Ridge Cemetery.”

Boyd said along the way the Illinois National Guard has answered our Nation’s call over-and-over again, helping achieve military victories, initiating and strengthening our Nation’s relationships with our allies and partners, and has built lasting relationships with partner nations.

“The men and women, the missions, and the moments make our history rich and vibrant,” he said.

The capstone of the Springfield events was an invitation-only gala at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Nearly 300 invited guests were in attendance as Gen. (ret.) Frank Grass, the 27th chief of the National Guard Bureau, spoke about the changes the National Guard has undergone since its early beginnings, and Mariusz Blaszczak, Polish Defense Minister, talked about the long friendship the Illinois National Guard and Poland have shared as part of the State Partnership Program.

“The cooperation of the Polish Armed Forces and the Illinois National Guard is a great example of close military ties between Poland and the United States,” said Blaszczak. “In July 1993 the Polish Armed Forces joined the State Partnership Program. The Illinois National Guard was chosen to work with us. Our partnership was sealed long before Poland was able to join NATO.”

Blaszczak said the focus initially was to learn and reach proper military standards.

“This year we’re celebrating the 30th anniversary of this event,” he said. “I’m very confident that without your help, it could have taken us much longer to be at the level we are today with training, equipment, and capabilities.”

Blaszczak said Poland was honored by the Illinois National Guard co-deployment participation on every Polish Armed Forces rotation to Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003-2020.

“This participation involved more than 30 deployments and more than 32,000 Polish Soldiers,” he said. “I’m sure many life-long relationships were built during those deployments. What is equally important is we are doing 35 to 40 annual activities under the State Partnership Program.”

Blaszczak said even if the Illinois National Guard doesn’t have the capabilities Poland is looking for, the Illinois National Guard uses the sources from other states to support their partner.

“Let me congratulate you on being chosen as one of the top three in the state partnership competition among 88 partnerships across 100 countries,” he said. “It tells a lot not only about the quality you’re able to provide to Poland, your partner, but it also proves it has been appreciated and awarded here in your own country. We are proud to have such a steadfast partner.”

Grass said the National Guard has changed significantly since its beginning.

“In a way, the National Guard has come full circle since the 16 and 17-hundreds. Then, colonial citizens relied on the organized militias, like the Illinois Militia, to protect them from hostile groups and respond in times of emergency,” said Grass. “Today…the Army National Guard provides the active Army nearly 40-percent of its operational force, and the Air National Guard provides the Air Force 30-percent of its operational force.” 

Grass, who often spent summers visiting grandparents in St. Genevieve, Missouri, not far from the birthplace of the Illinois National Guard in Kaskaskia, Illinois, said the closeness of communities down there is precisely the sense you get when you visit any National Guard unit in the nation.

Grass said that for 300 years here in Illinois, and for a total of more than 386-years, the National Guard has answered the call of our nation and our neighbors. 

“National Guard Soldiers and Airmen are protecting our citizens in ways today that the settlers in 1723 could never imagine,” Grass said. “Our mission has changed, but our readiness and relevance hasn’t.

“This has imparted a lasting impact on our citizens and our communities. It defines the National Guard’s legacy,” he said. “The Illinois National Guard and the National Guards of the other 53-states and territories have never been more relevant than it is today.  Our relevance is a byproduct of our legacy.”

Grass said the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks made the National Guard relevant again.

“Before the September 11, 2001 terrorists attacks, being prepared to fight and win America’s wars was not the National Guard’s top priority,” he said. “ We did what we needed to be somewhat prepared with the resources we had.  Being prepared was a goal, but the general thought was…we would have time to get ready if we were ever needed. However 9-11 changed that to ‘we gotta be ready to go, right now.’”

Grass said since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, more than one million National Guard Soldiers and Airmen, including almost 30,000 from the Illinois National Guard, have deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Kuwait, Guantanamo Bay, Ukraine, and dozens of other locations around the globe. 

“In a short amount of time, and with significant investment, the National Guard went from providing almost zero operational force to the active Army and Air Force to nearly 40 percent and 30 percent respectively,” he said. “At the same time, here at home, the National Guard supports the communities they serve in a myriad of ways. In 2020, National Guard Soldiers and Airmen served their communities a record 10.9 million man-days, supporting COVID-19, wildfires, civil disturbances, hurricanes, and many other missions.”

Grass said that during the Cold War, the National Guard was relegated to a strategic reserve of the Army and Air Force. However, after the Cold War ended, the State Partnership Program was established, where National Guard states were paired with former Soviet Block nations to foster mutual interests and establish long-term relations across all levels of society.

“The Illinois National Guard’s SPP with Poland was one of the first partnerships established and, today, serves as the gold standard of partnerships,” Grass said. “The SPP is a critical engagement tool to promote U.S. access, enhance military capabilities, improve interoperability and develop the principles of responsible government.”

Grass emphasized that only the National Guard can do the SPP mission.

“The Active components cannot develop trust and credibility because their personnel change assignments quickly making long-term personal relationships impossible to establish and maintain,” Grass said. “These partnerships not only foster wartime allies, but they also promote the development of our partners’ civil capabilities including emergency services.  A great example of this is here in Illinois where the Illinois National Guard is facilitating connections between state emergency response agencies and Poland’s fire service personnel.” 

Grass said the National Guard is relevant because, as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said, “our national security strategy depends upon securing the cooperation of other nations, and the National Guard secures that cooperation.”

Grass said it’s impossible to predict the challenges and missions the National Guard will face 300 years from now.

“But we should expect our State Governors and the Department of Defense to rely on the National Guard more, not less,” he said. “Congratulations on 300 years of service and support to the citizens of Illinois.”

Maj. Gen. Rich Neely, the Adjutant General of Illinois and Commander of the Illinois National Guard added to Grass’ comments about the State Partnership Program.

“In addition to being our 300th anniversary, this year we are also celebrating the 30th anniversary of our State Partnership with Poland,” Neely said. “Over these 30 years about 350 Soldiers and Airmen annually participate in military exchanges with the Armed Forces of Poland. To date we’ve conducted more than 400 bilateral events.”

Neely said these bilateral engagements have included lending the Illinois National Guard’s experience and expertise to assist in establishing its Territorial Defense Forces in 2017, which is similar to the National Guard here in the U.S.

Neely said those exchanges go both ways. “In April of 2020 a Polish medical team came to Illinois to assist with the State’s COVID-19 response,” he said.

In addition, members of the Illinois National Guard co-deployed on every Polish rotation to Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003 to 2020, which involved more than 30 deployments and more than 32,000 Polish Soldiers. 

“You cannot tell the recent history of the Illinois National Guard without Poland and our State Partnership,” Neely said. “We are grateful to have a large delegation of our Polish counterparts with us here this evening. Thank you for being great partners, and a great part of our Illinois National Guard history.”

Neely said he expects the Illinois National Guard will change over the next 100 years, but the focus will remain the same.

“We should all comfortably expect that in a hundred years at our 400th anniversary the Illinois National Guard will be doing the same great things we do today and have always done,” he said. “We should also expect to hear accounts of landmark innovations, success in cyber space, and effectively integrating emerging technologies including artificial intelligence.

Today, our Illinois National Guard looks vastly different than 300-years ago, and it will look vastly different in 300-years. And we will still need men and women willing to commit themselves to a larger cause.”