PHOTOS: Hickenlooper, Edwards lead celebration of Colorado National Guard’s 157th birthday
Author: Ernest Luning - January 23, 2017 - Updated: January 23, 2017
Gov. John Hickenlooper had a simple message to convey before he pulled a saber from its scabbard and sliced into an enormous birthday cake.
Noting that the Colorado National Guard is an institution older than the state — it counts territorial militias, including the Colorado Volunteer Militia, the Denver Guard and the Jefferson Rangers, in its lineage — the governor surveyed the crowd gathered Monday in the state Capitol’s West Foyer and smiled.
“They have all, without exception, been there to answer the call,” he said, kicking off a celebration of the Guard’s 157th birthday.
“There are over 5,500 men and women who serve in the state right now and countless corps veterans, and I take every chance I can to thank them either directly — or indirectly — on behalf of the state for their service to this state and the country and, in so many cases, their sacrifice,” said Hickenlooper as an Army guardsman dressed in an authentic World War II uniform stood nearby at attention.
The Governor’s Own 101st Army Band played a rousing version of “Happy Birthday,” as well as familiar military tunes. In an unscripted moment, Korean War veteran Hart Axley stood at the microphone and sang “The Star Spangled Banner,” bringing the crowd to its feet. (Axley later recalled that it wasn’t the first time he’d sung in the marble halls, noting that he serenaded former House Minority Leader Ruth Wright’s daughter many years ago when she said her wedding vows on the rotunda steps.)
When those assembled stood to sing along with the band, state Sen. Larry Crowder, an Army veteran who served in the Vietnam War, belted out the lyrics to both “The U.S. Army Song” (“Then it’s hi! hi! hey! the Army’s on its way”) and “The U.S. Air Force Song” (“Off we go into the wild blue yonder”) with equal gusto.
After the celebration, Crowder said he was struck how important it was to realize how often the Colorado National Guard is activated. “They’re among our first responders,” he said. “They do such a tremendous job on that.” Their service, he said, could be summed up with three words: “Commitment, integrity and honor.”
Before the governor spoke, Col. Scott Sherman, chief of joint staff for the Colorado National Guard, recounted its history. Formed in 1860, the territorial militia opposed invading Confederate soldiers and sent troops to fight for the Union in Missouri and Kansas. Mobilized in every war and conflict since — a Colorado unit led the assault on Manila in the Spanish-American War and Colorado guardsmen liberated the Dachau Labor Camp on April 29, 1945 — the state’s National Guard has answered a lot of calls.
The guard not only responds to floods, wildfires, blizzards and tornadoes, he said, but its units have played crucial roles assisting in major events in Colorado over the years, including World Youth Day in 1993, the G8 Summit in 1997 and the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
It’s a point Hickenlooper made.
“I would argue that, until you’re a governor, you can never really appreciate how important the National Guard is to the state, to the country and to the world,” he said.
“Those first four years when I was governor, we had some of the worst droughts, the worst wildfires and the worst floods in the history of the state,” Hickenlooper said, gesturing to Maj. Gen. H. Michael Edwards, the adjutant general of Colorado. “It seemed like I’d been on a helicopter once in my entire life before stepping into that role as governor, and then Gen. Edwards and I were in his Blackhawk helicopter all too often. For a while there, it seemed like pretty much every other week we were going to a natural disaster.”
“When you see first-hand how important your National Guard is and how they go, without ever a moment’s hesitation, they go wherever they are needed and they endure any risk or sacrifice, you come away with an appreciation,” Hickenlooper said.
Noting that he can sometimes get pretty competitive with other governors, Hickenlooper added, “I would hold our National Guard up against those of any other state and have done so repeatedly, and I don’t think I’ve ever backed down on that yet. Every time we get down to details of whose National Guard has done what for their state, our National Guard is always at the top of the list. Next time you see a National Guard member, take the time to thank them.”
Edwards smiled as he began his remarks.
“We really do appreciate you bragging on us against the other states, because we are competitive,” he said.
And then he did some bragging of his own: “Every single mission we are involved with is significantly important, both to our nation and our state,” Edwards said.
He pointed out that more than 400 Colorado guardsmen are currently deployed overseas, in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Korea. “You name it, we’re there,” he said, adding that this year another 400 airmen will be deployed, doubling the number serving abroad by summer.
Recalling the governor’s mention of their numerous helicopter rides, Edwards said that the Colorado National Guard is responsible for a full 60 percent of what he termed the “rotary-wing recover search and rescues” in the entire country. “Now, these beautiful mountains, they can be dangerous,” he said. “So folks need our help, and the governor absolutely knows that we are there. The Air Force Rescue Coordination Center absolutely knows the excellence of our folks, so they never hesitate to call.”
In addition, Edwards said, the Colorado National Guard is poised to grow significantly, with the potential to add another 4,500 Army guardsmen in the near term and more in the long run. The Guard has also been growing recently in Colorado Springs, with the air guard involved with space activities, and the Guard is in the process of standing up a cyber-protection team, he said.
“It is the combat reserve of our United States Army, the combat reserve of our United States Air Force, and the first military responders in this great state of Colorado,” said Edwards. “There are four words that will describe your National Guard: Always ready, always there.”