North Dakota-based airmen – better known as Hooligans – are being recognized for producing the “outstanding unit of the year” nearly two dozen times since 1971.
The 119th Wing received the designation for the 23rd time, with its commander attributing success to doing things the “Hooligans’ way.” Dubbed the Happy Hooligans early in its history, the unit’s most-recent award is for achievements from Oct. 1, 2019, to Sept. 30, 2020, including successfully executing “combat and expeditionary support operations to multiple commands by activating over 165 airmen to locations around the globe,” according to a press release.
And in December 2022, the wing’s 178th Attack Squadron was recognized as the General Atomics Remotely PilotedAircraft Squadron of the Year.
‘Mission, people, teams’
Col. Mitch Johnson, 119th Wing commander, uses a focus on “mission, people, teams” to guide personnel, and he says it’s the people who make the award achievable by continuously exceeding expectations.
“Our people really are what earn us the award,” he said. “So, for instance, when we send people to basic military training or to tech school, they come back with awards at a highly disproportionate level … Our weapons school graduate that we just sent there was the top graduate in his area … When we send our civil engineers over to do different things from our State Partnership Program to missions overseas, they consistently do it better and faster … in that Hooligan way that we strive for — where we’re doing it, we do it well, we do it as a team.”
Located in Fargo, North Dakota, the 119th Wing consists of four groups, with its core mission focused on the MQ-9 Reaper — a remotely piloted aircraft that can conduct reconnaissance and surveillance missions, search and rescue, and precision strike and close air support missions.
During the period of award evaluation, Hooligans flew more than 10,000 combat hours resulting in successful degradation of enemy networks; the 119th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group continued to lead the Air National Guard through its 456% increase in target production output; and the 219th Security Forces Squadron facilitated a 98.7% sortie alert rate while safeguarding $3.3 billion in U.S. Strategic Command nuclear assets, according to the release.
Ongoing mission results
The airmen have continued to achieve such results despite facing several challenges domestically and overseas, Johnson says, as was seen across the National Guard as a whole.
“In our MQ-9 mission, we had to keep that going 24/7 and isolate any COVID positives, which was a pretty big challenge,” he said. “We also had state active duty for the COVID mission, so we had folks here from our medical group and some of our other groups that were able to support the governor’s COVID response in our state. Then, Operation Allies Welcome occurred where the Afghan refugees were coming back and we had over a dozen members support that endeavor, and we had one-tenth of our force deployed overseas to support ongoing operations in three different areas of responsibility.”
Deployed airmen also assisted with the U.S. military withdrawal in Afghanistan, even though that wasn’t part of the initial deployment, Johnson said, and he credits the Hooligans with always figuring out how to solve problems.
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He added that the COVID-19 pandemic also showed him “how valuable it actually is to get together.”
“The first time we were able to do an assembly with more than 50 people, was huge — nobody wanted to leave, everybody was talking. I would argue that’s the biggest lesson learned [from the pandemic],” Johnson said.
Wing personnel will continue a return to normalcy as they travel to the Indo-Pacom theater at different points this year to conduct annual training. The 119th Wing is paired with Benin, Togo and Ghana as part of its State Partnership Program.
The Hooligans previously earned the AFOUA award in 1971, 1973, 1979, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1998, 2001, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Outstanding Airmen of the Year
In addition to the AFOUA award, the North Dakota Air National Guard’s Outstanding Airmen of the Year were also recognized during a ceremony earlier this year.
- Field Grade Officer of the Year: Lt. Col. Jeffrey Hovdenes
- Company Grade Officer of the Year: Capt. Jesse Moch
- Senior Noncommissioned Officer of the Year: Senior Master Sgt. Danelle Card
- Non-commissioned Officer of the Year: Tech. Sgt. Abigail Swanson
- Airman of the Year: Senior Airman Ethan Cermak
Card, who transitioned from F-16s to the current unmanned mission, has been with the unit since 1998. In her current position, she works to further develop virtual exercise capabilities within the operations group, wing and for the benefit of other warfighters. She attributes her accomplishments to being “completely replaceable.”
“So to me it’s not about a single performance, a specific project or the things you personally accomplish, or the hours you spend outside of work making a positive impact on today’s society, but it’s more about being a part of a team,” she said, “being able to not only be the person doing the work and pushing the innovation envelope and bringing that expertise, but also being completely replaceable by empowering those around you to do whatever it is you do.”
Card advises airmen who seek to standout to “work hard, be good at your job but always be willing to work outside of your job. Be trustworthy; always stay humble and always remember you’re part of a bigger team and you can’t get anywhere worth going by going on your own.”
She also competes as part of the North Dakota biathlon team, which earlier this year finished second in the women’s overall category.