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Fighter Wing fighter: Wilkening takes on his most dangerous foe

During his tenure with the Wisconsin Air National Guard, Major General (USAF, retired) Al Wilkening took on America’s enemies, but he now faces a different enemy — cancer.

Maj. Gen. (USAF, retired) Al Wilkening greets former First Lady Barbara Bush.

Maj. Gen. (USAF, retired) Al Wilkening greets former First Lady Barbara Bush.

Photos courtesy Al Wilkening

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If there is one person who is really looking forward to the 70th anniversary celebration of the 115th Fighter Wing, it’s Major General (USAF, retired) Al Wilkening.

During his tenure with the Wisconsin Air National Guard, Wilkening took on America’s enemies, but he now faces his most dangerous foe of all — cancer. Earlier this year, the 72-year-old Wilkening was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and his plan of treatment attack is in its earliest stages. Needless to say, he’s prepared to do battle, but instead of fighter aircraft, the enemy is being bombarded with chemotherapy and painkilling drugs.

Even though the treatment schedule complicates things, he fully intends to be in attendance this October when the 115th celebrates its anniversary. “The first week, the treatment kind of knocks your socks off, and then the second week you feel more normal until you go into your next treatment,” he says, “so I’m going to check all that out as it relates to the 70th anniversary.”

Wilkening and wife, Pat, were vacationing in Florida when he experienced stomach discomfort. Upon their return home, he was set for his usual annual physical examination and preliminary tests revealed the bad news — he had pancreatic cancer with some involvement with blood vessels in that area. Additional testing at the Carbone Cancer Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison confirmed that diagnosis, and it also led to what Wilkening characterized as top-notch treatment from skilled, sympathetic physicians and nurses.

“I’ve been on chemo now for a couple of months, and there’s been a little bit of progress,” he happily notes. “I hope this continues, but the fight is on, and I’m up for the fight.”

Defensive posture

Maj. Gen. Wilkening next to an A-10 Warthog, his favorite fighter.

In a way, Wilkening is a military brat. He was born on Feb. 1, 1946 as the only son of Albert and Madeline Wilkening. His mother and father both worked in the World War II defense industry for Republic Aviation Corp., and Wilkening thinks of them as the “Rosie the Riveter” and shop steward of their day. Republic (aka Fairchild Hiller) would ultimately build the aircraft that was Al Wilkening’s favorite fighter, the A-10 Warthog.

A native of New York state, Wilkening was educated in the Massapequa, New York school system on Long Island. Mr. Alec Baldwin, father of the famous Baldwin brothers, taught his favorite subject, American history. Another alumnus and track teammate was Ron Kovic, the Vietnam war hero turned anti-war activist who penned the 1976 memoir Born on the 4th of July, which later was made into an Academy-award winning film in which Kovic was portrayed by Tom Cruise.

Wilkening graduated in the top half of his class in June 1963, and he was accepted at Long Island University (C.W. Post Campus), where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree (cum laude) in psychology in June 1967. In that final year, and with the Vietnam War raging and sparking nationwide protests, he wasted no time applying for acceptance into Air Force Officer Training School.

He enlisted in the Air Force in 1968 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in March of that year. Following pilot training at Webb Air Force Base in Texas, he was selected to be a flight instructor at Columbus Air Force Base (Columbus, Mississippi). While on that assignment, he would meet the future Mrs. Pat Wilkening (the two wed in 1971).

In May 1973, the couple moved to Pat’s neck of the woods, Oregon, Wisconsin, where they would both transition to civilian careers and, for Al, a part-time military position. That August, Captain Wilkening joined the Wisconsin Air National Guard as a traditional (part-time) airman. His full-time civilian job was as personnel director for United Bank and Trust Co. of Madison (now BMO), and in 1976, he joined the Wisconsin Power and Light Co. (now Alliant Energy) as a professional recruiter and advanced to manager of compensation and benefits.

While employed by these companies for 17 years, Wilkening also served in a variety of command and staff positions as a major, lieutenant colonel, and colonel — including commander of the 176th Fighter Squadron (A-10) and as deputy commander of operations for the 128th Tactical Fighter Wing. He offers high praise of both companies for their support of the Wisconsin National Guard, noting that both had executives who served in the military, including the Guard, or had family members who served.

In November 1990, Wilkening was appointed to the full-time military position of deputy adjutant general and commander of the Wisconsin Air National Guard. His command consisted of three air bases and 2,300 Airmen stationed in Milwaukee, Madison, and Camp Douglas, Wisconsin. In this capacity, he sent Airmen from the 128th Air Refueling Wing and their KC 135s to Southwest Asia as part of Operation Desert Shield. This was the first of many operations over the next 17 years involving conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Years and years of deployments, seeing some of the members of the Fighter Wing and the Army National Guard going overseas, it was trying,” Wilkening acknowledges. “Families were just not used to the mobilization of the National Guard, but they stepped up. As a matter of fact, our enlistment rates went up, not down. People wanted to participate in the military experience, so that’s very noteworthy.”

In 2002, Gov. Scott McCallum appointed Brigadier General Wilkening to the position of the adjutant general (TAG), the commanding general of the Wisconsin Army and Air National Guard. His command included 10,000 soldiers, airmen, and civilians throughout the state. In 2003, Gov. Jim Doyle gave him an additional duty by appointing him as the governor’s homeland security adviser and chair of the state’s Homeland Security Council.

Throughout the next five years, now Major General Wilkening witnessed firsthand the courageous performance of soldiers, airmen, and members of Wisconsin Emergency Management. As the “TAG,” he visited troops in Iraq and Afghanistan four times and could not be prouder of their contributions. “I got to see the countryside, got to see where our soldiers and airmen were flying and fighting, and it was a real eye-opener because they were doing such great work in support of that operation,” Wilkening states. “I felt a great deal of pride personally as their commander and also for the state.”


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