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115th celebration: Lenz recalls the anti-war protests

While it once kept a low profile during the height of Vietnam War protests, the 115th Fighter Wing is generally viewed today as a unifying force that contributes to the Greater Madison economy.

David Lenz, chairman of the North Central Group and founding member of the Badger Air Community Council.

David Lenz, chairman of the North Central Group and founding member of the Badger Air Community Council.

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David Lenz can only chuckle about how times have changed. In 1969, as a college student and a young pilot trainee with the Air National Guard’s 115th Fighter Wing, he would walk to class at the height of the Vietnam War protests at UW–Madison and there were times business students needed the help of the Wisconsin National Guard just to get in the door. At that time, the unit’s presence and work at the local airport was not that well known, and even though it was not involved in Vietnam combat or other missions, it was best to keep it that way.

Today, the 115th literally reaches out to the Madison community by way of the Badger Air Community Council, and the Fighter Wing is generally viewed as a unifying force that contributes to the local economy. The unit is planning a special 70th anniversary celebration this October at Truax Field, where, who knows? Even some of the Vietnam-era war protestors might show up to raise a glass to the 115th.

Stranger things have happened, and some of them occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Back then Lenz, now chairman of the North Central Group, had just joined the 115th Fighter Group. He was sent to the Air Force for basic pilot training in 1970, and returned to Truax Field and the 115th as a fully qualified F-102 interceptor pilot in 1971.

During that period, the 115th was considered part of the reserve forces to be used only if needed. It was not considered part of the “Total Force” concept that the Air National Guard is part of today, and it was not activated or deployed as it has been over the past 20 years in Afghanistan and Iraq.

As Lenz underwent pilot training, the anti-war movement was very evident in Madison. He recalls 1969 because that’s the year the Army National Guard was sent to guard entrance doors so that UW–Madison business students could go to class. To Lenz, it was surreal because he was both a student and a Guardsman.

For war protestors, one factor was particularly controversial. “In 1969, I was a business school student at UW and a member of the 115th,” he explains. “Business classes were held at the Commerce Building on campus, and that’s also where Dow Chemical would interview students for employment. Of course, Dow made napalm, which was used extensively in the war.”

The 115th was rather quietly going about its business on the east side of town, but had the unit been directly involved in combat missions, the protestors might have paid a visit. “It probably would have been different,” Lenz acknowledges. “The F-102 [aircraft] could not carry bombs or napalm and did not have a cannon, so it was not used much in Vietnam. Our unit’s presence at Truax was not well known, and we wanted to keep it that way.

“So now, it really is a contrast. Here we are promoting the 115th and making the community aware of all the positive impact it has.”

Lenz would serve in the 115th for 14 years, flying several aircraft including the F-102A, O2-A, OA-37, and the A-10. The F-102, which was loaded with six missiles and rockets, was strictly used as an air-to-air interceptor. “We were assigned the North American Air Defense (NORAD) mission with two fighters on alert in shelters at the end of Runway 36 at the Dane County airport, ready to launch in five minutes to intercept any ‘bogeys,’ presumably Russian bombers threatening the homeland,” he explains. “We would practice the air defense mission over central and northern Wisconsin against B52s, B57s, and T33s. They would act as the aggressors and we would be vectored in to an intercept by GCI, a radar ground intercept facility near Duluth.”

F-35 decision looms

Today, another kind of aircraft occupies the thoughts of unit commanders and community leaders alike. While a final decision isn’t expected until the spring of 2019, the 115th has emerged as the leading contender to house the new F-35 fighter aircraft, and securing it would preserve many of the jobs that now exist at the 115th Fighter Wing. The unit employs more 1,200 civilian and military personnel, and it averages $100 million in annual economic impact to the state.

The selection process has advanced to a third phase, where an EIS, or environmental impact statement, is underway on all of five potential sites. The EIS is a study of all of the potential environmental, socio-economic, and noise impacts related to the change from the current F-16 aircraft to the F-35s. The F-16 planes the unit now has are the oldest in the inventory. “When they are retired, there is no guarantee of a follow-on aircraft,” Lenz explains. “The unit could be deactivated, which would be a huge loss to our community.”

To Lenz, a positive outcome would continue the storied history the 115th has enjoyed in Madison for 70 years. The 115th now serves three missions: it provides homeland defense; it serves as a member of the Department of Defense’s Total Force concept deploying worldwide; and it serves the state’s mission of emergency assistance in many specialties including civil engineering, HAZMAT, medical, bomb disposal, and drug interdiction.

Helping the 115th connect with the community and state is where the Badger Air Community Council comes in handy. Lenz, a founding member of the BACC, describes the council as a business leader support group for the fighter wing’s airmen and families. As such, it tries to make connections between the military and the business community in Madison that did not exist before it was formed. Among the prominent business people involved are: former UW–Madison Director of Athletics and Oscar Mayer executive Pat Richter; former American Family Insurance chief executives Dave Anderson and Jack Salzwedel; Mike Moore, executive vice president of M3 Insurance Solutions; and Colonel Jeff Wiegand, former commander of the 115th.

“There was a loose affiliation, but there was never a serious effort to introduce the 115th Fighter Group and its mission to the community,” Lenz notes, “so the BACC is really the catalyst for that.”

(Continued)

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