Wyoming's Long Tradition of Service

In any random group of American military personnel you might encounter overseas, you’ll almost certainly find more Wyoming people than you’d have any right, statistically, to expect. Providing armed combatants for the nation’s overseas deployments, it turns out, is one of the Cowboy State’s longest and most enduring traditions. The recent wars in Iraq, now essentially complete, and Afghanistan, due to wrap up soon, have been no exception — and those soldiers, like their counterparts from elsewhere in America, have largely returned.

Joint Base Balad, Iraq

Back at home, Wyoming’s service men and women arrive to a still-sluggish economy and job market, long deferred personal lives and careers, and perhaps most frustratingly, a home front grown weary almost to the point of seeming indifference toward an unpopular and expensive military foray. But Wyoming, among a handful of other states, hewed to its military service traditions and confronted longstanding beliefs about government spending to prepare for the inevitable, and crucial, financial emergencies that would come to face its uniformed personnel.

Powder River Let ‘Er Buck

In the post-Vietnam years of no draft and lower enlistment rates, Wyoming’s National Guard made the state’s largest contributions to the Pentagon’s overseas operations. Both Guard members and active-service veterans returning home face uncertainties unlike the ones faced by those who preceded them. But military service in times of national mobilization has long been a calling for Wyoming residents.

The Wyoming 115th Mechanized Cavalry

Wyoming’s first militias were formed of Territorial civilian volunteers in 1871, following Indian attacks along the Sweetwater River; an area of dispute where Arapaho and Shoshone tribes reacted against what they saw as trespassing by gold miners and settlers.

Wyoming was the first state to meet — and far exceed — its federal troop quota for the Spanish-American War in 1898. The enduring cowboy shout of Wyoming’s soldiers serving in the humid heat of the Philippines was, “Powder River! — Let’ er buck!”

Two battalions of the Wyoming National Guard rode the Mexican Border for Gen. John Pershing in 1916, during the troubles with revolutionary guerilla leader Pancho Villa.

When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Wyoming sent 7 percent of its population — 11,393 soldiers. The trench warfare period in France saw the birth of Wyoming’s state symbol of a cowboy riding a bucking bronc, a design concocted by Sheridan-area cattle rancher and supply sergeant George N. Ostrom with the state Guard’s 148th Field Artillery Regiment and painted on howitzer cannons.

The logo was carried into battle during World War II by the 115th Mechanized Cavalry, and to Korea on the self-propelled 105mm “Cowboy Cannons” of the 300th Armored Field Artillery of the Guard. Wyoming sent almost 30,000 — over 10 percent of its population — to World War II, during which 1,095 Wyoming men were killed. In the Korean War, 70 Wyoming citizens died.

During Vietnam, 2,673 Wyoming men served, and 135 died in combat — the fifth hardest-hit state for casualties in ratio to population.


National Guard combat units were deliberately excluded by Pentagon officials from participation in battles during the short-lived Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait and Iraq during 1990-91. “The culminating point for the Guard was 1990, after 10 years of modernization, equipment upgrades, and professional education for both officers and NCO’s,” concluded Lieutenant Colonel Brian C. Harris in his 2003 report for the U.S. Army War College. “The Gulf War could have been the biggest turning point in the ‘Total Force Policy’ and the future utilization of National Guard combat units.” He stated that the decision not to use a Guard combat brigade “will forever be an emotional issue for many in the Army National Guard. The comments made by General Schwarzkopf and General Burba before and after the war were contradictory and inflammatory. The outcome was that Army National Guard infantry units were not given the opportunity to prove themselves again in combat.”

By the time of Harris’ report, however, entire Wyoming National Guard units were poised to be activated for Operation Iraqi Freedom. And by early 2012, 2,509 Wyoming Guard soldiers and Air Guard members had been deployed at least once for a combat mission. Three Wyoming Army National Guard soldiers were killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, and many survivors came home with service-related injuries and disabilities.

State Help for the Homefront

Most of them are home at last. The Wyoming Military Department reports that only 45 of its Guard members remained deployed overseas as of January 1, 2012, predominately in Kosovo.

Wyoming governor Matt Mead speaks with Spcs. Justin Pierce and Meredith Vincent

After the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq, Guard members were no longer “weekend warriors,” but called up to leave behind their families, jobs and communities for extensive deployments thousands of miles away in dangerously unpredictable neighborhoods.

The stresses of such long absences soon became common knowledge and cause for concern around Wyoming.

Mothers of young children were routinely stranded without adequate household incomes to cover housing, groceries, clothing, transportation and medical expenses. When plumbing failed, doctor and dental bills piled up and cars broke down, they often had no place to turn.

In the 2004 Wyoming Legislature, State Rep. Tom Walsh (R-Casper) drafted a bill to establish a state Military Assistance Trust Fund, to be launched with an appropriation of $10 million. But it was a fight getting it through the House, where the $10 million principal was immediately stripped by House leadership down to one symbolic dollar — seed money for expected private donations — provoking a strong reaction from then-Gov. Dave Freudenthal.

“What I’m afraid is this bill becomes collateral damage” in the budget debate, Freudenthal said. “It’s not enough for us to simply go to the deployments and wish them well. We need to remember that they are bearing not only an emotional hardship and a risk to personal safety, but they and their families are confronted with financial hardships. ”

Ultimately, the Legislature set the principal at $5 million, with $600,000 for immediate operations, and later, another $400,000, due to the high numbers of Wyoming Guard deployments at the time.

The Trust Fund was set up to be a “last resort” for helping Wyoming residents of any branch of military service who run into service-connected financial emergencies. Grants were to be made from proceeds on the interest earned from investment in the Agency Pool by the State Treasurer.

At the Veterans Day 2008 dedication of a new chapel expansion at the Oregon Trail State Veterans Cemetery, Gov. Freudenthal told the gathering that he would ask the next Legislature to approve another $1 million for the Trust Fund. The Governor said more money was needed at the time because family financial needs would only grow when 941 Wyoming National Guard soldiers got deployed to Iraq and Kuwait in 2009, marking the largest single deployment from Wyoming since World War Two.

At the deployment ceremony that summer, Freudenthal assured the departing troops: “This year the Wyoming Legislature again generously supported the Military Assistance Trust Fund, which exists solely to help you and your family in times like these. This fund offers grants that can help fix a furnace, replace a water heater or put a new fuel pump in a car when you need it most.”

He said such state assistance to families puts the service members’ minds at ease so they can better focus on the task at hand.

By the end of 2011, the Fund had made over $2.1 million in grants. Out of a total of 1,027 grants, most of the assistance went to 987 Wyoming Army and Air Guard members or families. Grants went to help seven Marines or Marine Reserves; two from the Air Force; nine Navy and 21 Army regulars or Reserve.

U.S. Army Sgt. Chris Walsh

Wyoming Veterans Commission Director Larry Barttlebort, a retired Army colonel whose bureau advocates for the 55,800 veterans residing in Wyoming from all branches and eras, said that while Wyoming is a conservative state and budget priorities might be made at the expense of human services, “overall, the State of Wyoming has a pretty extensive safety net” for veterans.

“When Dad is in the desert, the wife and mom is having her own battles. Some of that reintegration can be rough, so we have programs to help couples get through it.” He noted that National Guard families often live in remote, small towns and rural areas where there are not the same support systems and cultures found near a large, active military installation, when many families live close together, in base housing, and are sharing similar experiences.

“We’ve had great support from the Legislature and the Governor’s office,” Barttlebort said. “Communities across Wyoming have embraced these young military families as well.”

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Patrick Dawson reported assignments for TIME for more than 25 years, ranging from New Mexico to Alaska, including covering the Unabomber arrest, Freemen standoff, Yellowstone issues, the Elizabeth Smart...

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  1. This is a great essay. Thank you for it.
    But, you neglected to mention the WWII “remount” army on the Burma Road, AND, did you really mean to say: “where Arapaho and Shoshone tribes reacted against what THEY SAW AS trespassing by gold miners and settlers?” What else was it?