LINCOLN, Neb. –
On a bright and warm mid-summer afternoon, newly-promoted U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Daryl Bohac stood atop a large stage set up on the Nebraska Air National Guard parade field and peered out at more than 400 assembled Nebraska Soldiers and Airmen, and promised them that he would serve them as best as he could as the Nebraska National Guard prepared to transition out of more than a decade of sustained combat and combat support operations and into a new, somewhat unknown future.
“We will continue to seek the opportunities to sustain our capabilities and build upon our hard-won experience,” said Bohac shortly after becoming Nebraska’s 33rd adjutant general July 14, 2013. “Our mission is simple – to prepare and deliver combat forces to our nation at home and abroad, and protect the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of this state when needed.”
As the leader of the Nebraska Military Department, which includes both the Nebraska Army and Air National Guard, as well as the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, Bohac assumed command of an organization that had accomplished much over the past decade.
This included missions ranging from emergency response support following tornados, floods, blizzards as well as historic hurricane support missions on the Gulf Coast. It also involved peacekeeping missions in and above such locations as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, as well as combat operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and over Libya.
Growing efforts between the Nebraska and Texas National Guard and the Czech Armed Forces through the Guard’s State Partnership Program had evolved into a mature collaborative relationship that had also opened the door for Nebraska to explore emerging opportunities that could lead to the creation of a new SPP partnership.
Closer to home, the Nebraska Army National Guard was beginning to look at new missions and opportunities as old missions were being phased out, while the Nebraska Air National Guard’s 170th Group looked to grow its presence at Offutt Air Force Base as the 155th Air Refueling Wing continued efforts to modernize its base in Lincoln.
As July 2013 dawned, the Nebraska National Guard – as well as the larger Nebraska Military Department – seemed at a crossroads. One era was ending, while another was about to begin.
Bohac seemed to touch on this, on July 8, 2013, when he spoke about the opportunities that lie ahead of the organization when then-Gov. David Heineman announced that Bohac had been selected to succeed out-going Adjutant General (Maj. Gen.) Judd Lyons.
“…We have to find ways to keep the men and women who have enlisted to serve their state and nation engaged in ways that are meaningful and have purpose for them so that they stay around.”
What few people could’ve imagined was that local, state and world events would indeed present the men and women of the Nebraska National Guard and Nebraska Military Department with numerous opportunities to remain engaged during the decade that was to come.
Looking Back at an Historic Decade
While preparing to turn the reins of the organization over to U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Craig Strong on July 8, 2023, Bohac took some time in early June to reflect upon his tenure as adjutant general. He said that much of the Guard’s success during his tenure was due to the continuing dedication of Soldiers, Airmen and public servants to serve their neighbors and countrymen during times of need.
That commitment was definitely challenged, during the period of 2013-2023, much as it had been during decade immediately preceding it, when the Nebraska Guard confronted such challenges as multiple overseas deployments to the Middle East, Europe and Africa; growing its State Program Partnership with the Czech Republic and also Rwanda; and multiple domestic support missions, both in Nebraska and throughout the United States.
In fact, said Bohac, how the Nebraska National Guard confronted and overcame those challenges directly contributed to its ability to respond during his tenure as adjutant general.
Entering the summer 2013, it was becoming increasingly evident that the Nebraska National Guard was due for significant restructuring of its units and missions. Chief among these, said Bohac, was the need to change the 67th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade into an organization that better fit into the Army’s future plans, as well as the need to grow the Air Guard’s presence at Offutt Air Force Base.
“The Army (had moved away from battlefield surveillance brigades) and that created a whole series of challenges and opportunities,” said Bohac. This included the divestment of the current brigade for a new maneuver enhancement brigade and multiple truck companies. It would also include ultimately standing up of new combat arms organizations including a new airborne infantry battalion that required divesting such units as the 110th Multifunctional Medical Battalion and the 313th Medical Company (Ground Ambulance).
Bohac said the changes made for challenging decisions on what the future Nebraska Army Guard should look like.
When Nebraska was offered the opportunity to organize a new maneuver enhancement brigade, Bohac said he was unsure about its future relevance to the Army as a whole. That changed, he said, when state’s Joint Force Headquarters’ Army Guard staff convinced him of the positive aspects of the opportunity. “It turns out (MEBs are very relevant) as the Army’s using them in the Horn of Africa now, which has led to some of the deployments we are now seeing.”
Another difficult decision was whether to pursue a new Airborne unit for Nebraska.
“One of the things we wanted to do was rebalance the Army National Guard in the way of bringing more combat arms into the state,” Bohac said. “We had multiple truck companies in the Nebraska Army National Guard, which made sense when they were first stationed here, but as time went on they became extremely difficult to recruit new Soldiers into because there are simply limits to how many people want to drive trucks. So, we were very interested in trying to find ways to create more diversity within our force structure so that we could offer prospective Soldiers more additional opportunities in which to serve.”
Several years into his tenure, Bohac said Nebraska had learned about a possibility to add new airborne infantry units into the organization. Although initially looking to simply add a company-sized unit to the state, the Army National Guard ultimately offered to place an airborne infantry battalion headquarters and multiple subordinate units into Nebraska.
“Now,” Bohac said, “that became a bit controversial in the enterprise because people thought we were growing, but the reading of the tea leaves said that we were probably going to lose the 313th Medical Company (Ground Ambulance)” along with the 110th Multifunction Medical Battalion, which had significant historical ties to Nebraska.
Both of those changes ultimately occurred, along several other changes across the state. Many of those changes continue to be felt today as the units continue to recruit new Soldiers into their units. Yet, Bohac said, the state has a much higher level of diversity in structures and opportunities than in a significant period of time.
Regarding the Air Guard, the changes had less to do about restructuring as they did to growing the organizations’ missions, primarily the 170th Group’s ongoing support of the 55th Wing at Offutt Air Force Base. That’s because the 155th Air Refueling Wing was fairly stable in its mission, which saw members of the organization constantly deploying around the world in support of major U.S. efforts.
“On the Air Guard side, the goal was to continue to work for growth in the 170th, to add a maintenance and intelligence support squadron,” said Bohac. “That took almost 10 years to become a reality, which is a good lesson in persistence matters.”
Along the way, Bohac said that Nebraska Guard leaders had to continuously make the argument that an increased Air Guard presence at Offutt Air Force Base was crucial to the long-term strength of both organizations. “We kept pressing the case and getting support from our congressional delegation,” said Bohac, adding that U.S. Representative Don Bacon – a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general who had served as commander of the 55th Wing commander and knew firsthand the value that the Air Guard – played a crucial role in the success of the wing.
The Air National Guard officially stood up two new squadrons at Offutt Air Force base in the fall of 2022.
Bohac said ultimately, the changes have helped set the Nebraska National Guard up for future missions and opportunities.
“The one thing that I don’t see is the National Guard ever going back to the ‘Strategic Reserve’ structure it was in prior to Sept. 11, 2001,” he said. “What I do see is that people continue to want to serve. However, how they serve has changed quite a bit, due in part to COVID and the separations many young people went through during that period of time.”
“What we’re going to have to do is figure out how to adapt toward their needs,” he said. “That doesn’t mean relaxing our standards, but we can change our approach to how they serve.”
“But, in my mind there’s no going back to being a strictly strategic reserve,” Bohac said. “Now, I think we can be both an operational reserve with strategic depth because there will be years where (Soldiers and Airmen) don’t deploy and they’re part of that strategic reserve. But, then they will enter into their ready year and they will continue to support the Nation as part of this operational reserve structure that we’ve become accustomed to.”
Growing the State Partnership Program
Bohac’s experience with the National Guard-sponsored State Partnership Program goes back to the earliest days of the Nebraska-Texas-Czech Republic collaboration when he and Maj. Kelly Carlson were sent to Prague in 1998 to discuss various elements of Air Force maintenance and logistics.
“Hardly any (of the Czech leaders) spoke English; we had to have translators for everything,” Bohac recalled. “And we never really talked very much about logistics and maintenance. It became much more about how do they transform into a professional (noncommissioned officer) corps to meet NATO membership requirements?”
After a long night on the phone talking to members of Nebraska Army National Guard training staff to build a leadership development briefing for the Czech leadership, Bohac and his fellow Air Guardsmen were able to answer some of the Czechs’ preliminary questions. It was the start of many such conversations with Czech leaders designed to first build the Czech Republic Armed Force’s capabilities after decades of Warsaw Pact doctrine, and then how each organization could better complement each other in meeting their collective and individual challenges.
Jump ahead to 2023 and the SPP relationship with the Czech Armed Forces is completely transformed into a full-fledged partnership between the three organizations where concerns are freely shared, goals and strategic planning are constantly being discussed.
Some examples of that relationship maturity included an October 2018 invitation from the Czech Armed Forces to the Nebraska and Texas National Guard to form a color guard to lead all nations during the Centennial celebration and a 2020 request to the governors of both states to assist the Czech Republic in responding to the COVID pandemic.
Bohac said the relationship continues to evolve and mature, leading into more and more deep discussions about future efforts and collaborations.
“The last discussion I had with the Czechs involved getting their staffs more fully involved in brigade and even division-level warfighter exercises,” said Bohac. “So, we’ve made a huge step in a real short amount of time.”
That also contributed to the Nebraska National Guard’s newest State Partnership Program with the Rwandan Defense Forces, which became official in late 2019.
“One of my major goals when I became the adjutant general was adding another State Partnership Program partner,” he said. “With the maturity of the Czech Armed Forces relationship, I felt like we had the capacity to do one more.”
Like other efforts, this one also required a level of patience and persistence, Bohac said.
“It took a lot longer than I think people expected because we applied for multiple (partnerships) and we seemed like we were always runner-up,” he said. After one particular effort to become partners with an African country faded, the Nebraska National Guard was handed an unexpected opportunity.
According to Bohac, a member of the U.S. Africa Command joint staff had noticed a recent application of the Nebraska National Guard and recommended a new nation: Rwanda. “He recognized the strength of our package that we submitted for Cameroon… (he) became a powerful ally for (Nebraska) getting it.”
That relationship was formalized in late 2019 when Bohac and a team of senior Nebraska National Guard, National Guard and U.S. Africa Command leaders traveled to Kigali, Rwanda, for the official signing ceremony. The visit included placing a wreath of flowers at the Rwandan Genocide Memorial as well as other cultural exchanges designed to cement Nebraska’s bond with Rwanda.
“It was something really special,” Bohac recalled.
Bohac said the relationship, although paused by the COVID pandemic, is extremely important and has helped poise Nebraska to contribute to the international security environment within the African continent in a deeply meaningful way.
“The Rwanda partnership is different (than the one with the Czech Republic) because it not about NATO, but it is about bringing U.S. influence and presence in a way that’s particularly important,” he said. “You know the commander of U.S. Africa Command definitely wants State Partnerships active in his or her area command. It’s similar to the relationship that we have with the Czechs, but it’s also different because of the cultural contexts in Africa.”
That was definitely evident in March 2022 when Bohac visited Rwanda and saw members of the Nebraska Army and Air National Guard working with Rwandan engineers and medical professionals at a base in the southern part of the country where the Rwandans train-up for future United Nations mission in Africa.
Bohac said one of his last conversations with the Rwanda Defense Force leadership team came during a Chiefs of Defense Conference in Rome. “I had the opportunity to have dinner with Chief of Defense Staff (Jean) Kazura one evening during the conference, and our discussions really centered on where we both would like to see this partnership go in the future. So, I really feel like in terms of depth and value, this relationship has happened very quickly.”
The Ever-Changing Mission: Domestic Emergency Response
One of Bohac’s early goals when he became the Nebraska adjutant general was to ensure that the organization, after years of overseas combat and combat support missions, remained staffed, equipped and able to respond to calls for support during domestic emergencies. This had proven to be an important element considering the decade prior to Bohac’s appointment had seen the Nebraska Guard called up frequently for such traditional emergencies as wildfires, blizzards and tornadoes along with non-traditional emergencies missions as Hurricanes Katrina, Ike and Gustav, oil spills, southwest border missions, and an historic three-month flood along the Missouri and Platte Rivers in 2017.
What Bohac admittedly never expected was the sheer volume and historic nature of the emergencies that would confront the organization during his tenure.
“It never stopped,” Bohac said.
In 2017, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria sent Nebraska Army and Air Guardsmen to Houston, Texas, northern and central Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In 2018, Nebraska Soldiers and Airmen were sent to North Carolina in support of relief operations following Hurricane Florence.
Bohac said the missions were an important way of helping fellow states during times of needs.
“Governors play a critical role when it comes to providing National Guard support to other states (through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) process,)” Bohac said. “Governor Pete Ricketts’ philosophy – which is the same philosophy that Governor Heineman had and the same one that Governor Jim Pillen now has – is that if we can help another state during an emergency, we should do it because you never know when we’re the ones who will need the help.”
“So that changed things quite a bit for us,” Bohac said.
“Another element is that the frequency of weather phenomena has changed over the past few years,” he added, saying the complexity and size of natural disasters has grown significantly in recent years.
A significant test of Nebraska’s ability to respond to natural disasters began in March 2019 when a weather phenomenon meteorologists call a “bomb cyclone” caused near instantaneous melting of Nebraska’s accumulated snow, creating massive flooding on nearly every one of the state’s rivers and waterways simultaneously. Three Nebraskans lost their lives during the disaster.
“The most stressed I ever felt in this job was in 2019… going to bed each night, particularly during the first five to 10 days, not knowing if you’d saved everybody,” Bohac said, adding that the sheer size and speed of the disaster shocked even the most seasoned emergency response personnel. “I knew we were doing everything we could… (but) we had helicopter crews flying in some extraordinary dangerous conditions, especially during the first five to 10 days.”
Nebraska Soldiers and Airmen would become involved in massive search and rescue operations, logistics resupply missions to communities cut off by the flooding, sandbag efforts and, for the first time since the late 1940s, the deliver of hay to stranded and starving cattle from the air. Significant portions of Camp Ashland were either damaged or destroyed by the raging Platte River. Nebraska Emergency Management Agency officials also worked tirelessly throughout the disaster to help the state respond to the historic emergency.
“It was a crazy (period of time) but also one of my proudest moments. I just couldn’t have been more proud of our men and women in the Nebraska Guard and NEMA and how we worked together as a team,” he said.
Following the floods, Bohac said he hoped the organization would have a chance to “take a knee” and regroup. That reprieve lasted only a short few months before the next major historic emergency unfolded.
In early 2020, Nebraska learned that the Camp Ashland Training Site had been selected by U.S. officials as a repatriation site for U.S. citizens being evacuated from China following the emergence of a new disease caused by the Novel Coronavirus. Camp Ashland was selected due to its proximity to the University of Nebraska Medical Center and trained epidemiologists, skilled in responding to a major health emergency. That selection ushered in a period of nearly a year-and-a-half on near-constant calls for National Guard support as the state worked to protect its citizens during the worst pandemic in a century.
Nebraska Guardsmen were called to help out with COVID-19 testing and eventual inoculations. Others supported food bank operations and other organizations that requested Guard assistance. Planners, logistics specialists and numerous other Army and Air Guard specialists were also called upon to assist in ways never before imagined.
This effort was further complicated in mid-2020 when Nebraska saw its first major civil disturbances in approximately a half a century when protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, suddenly escalated in Omaha and Lincoln, prompting Governor Ricketts to mobilize the Nebraska National Guard to provide support to local and state law enforcement agencies.
The Nebraska National Guard was called upon again in January 2021 when it was mobilized to help protect the U.S. Capital following the violent demonstrations that occurred in Washington, D.C., on January 6 following the contentious 2020 Presidential Election.
“These were all missions that hadn’t happened before or, at least, at the scale at which we saw,” said Bohac.
Yet, despite the sheer size and duration of the missions, Nebraska Guard Soldiers and Airmen continued to volunteer to support the efforts, Bohac said.
“I think what that told me was that our men and women in the Nebraska Army and Air National Guard are committed to serving their state… they want to be involved and they want to go and help their neighbors,” he said. “That’s why they signed up. That’s why they chose the National Guard over the other Reserve Components or active duty.”
As the date to his change of command and retirement loom, Bohac admits he has had some time to reflect upon his 45-year military career, especially the past 10 as adjutant general. He said he hopes the era will be remembered by history as one in which the Nebraska Military Department, despite enormous pressures, continued to answer the call time and time again.
He hopes he will be remembered in a similar vein.
“What you’re talking about is legacy and I think that’s a really big question,” he said. “I hope that (I and this era) will be seen as transformational… and that we were trusted to do that transformation in such a way that we would be seen as open and accessible and relatively transparent, and that we entrusted our leaders to treat people right.”
That in turn helped create a level of trust in the Nebraska National Guard, both within the ranks as well as throughout the Nebraskan community, that continues on today.
“I am proud of the value that people see in us,” Bohac said. “And I am extremely proud of everything this team has accomplished in support of our Nation as well as our fellow Nebraskans.”