A seven-year veteran of the Wisconsin Air National Guard is the first recipient of the Thomas E. Wortham IV Achievement Award.
Tech. Sgt. Robert Garrelts of Sparta, a mechanic with the 128th Air Control Squadron at Volk Field Combat Readiness Training Center, received the award during a Dec. 2 ceremony at Joint Force Headquarters in Madison. The award recognizes Wisconsin National Guard member accomplishments off duty.
Garrelts, who joined the Illinois Army National Guard in 1987 and served in various units as well as the Army Reserve before joining the 128th ACS, struggled to express what receiving the Thomas E. Wortham IV Achievement Award meant to him.
"I really wish I could have gotten the chance to meet Thomas and serve with him," Garrelts said.
Garrelts is active with the Sparta Boys and Girls Club, serving as an executive board member and helped the organization raise $40,000 by volunteering for the club's annual haunted house fundraiser.
"I've seen numerous kids grow up in that house," he said, explaining that he works with Boys and Girls Club members for months constructing the new haunted house interior. Some youth appreciate the adult mentorship, while others learn how to use tools or build walls for the first time, he said.
Garrelts volunteers for the Sparta Fire Department, where he serves as the training officer and fire inspector for a 284-square-mile area of responsibility.
"I grew up around it," Garrelts said. "My dad was a firefighter - he still is. My brother is in a fire department. It's a family thing."
He noted that he has missed some holiday meals answering fire calls.
"I'd rather protect and save life," he said. "Who else is going to do it?"
He also volunteers with the Monroe County Hazardous Materials Team, and had volunteered with the Camp Douglas Ambulance from 2008-2010.
Garrelts has been a member of the Volk Field color guard team the past three years, and said every veteran deserves military honors at their funeral. He is also an executive committee member for the Wisconsin National Guard Youth Camp, where he serves as assistant security director.
The award is named for 1st Lt. Thomas Wortham IV, a member of the Wisconsin Army National Guard's Troop A, 105th Cavalry as well as a member of the Chicago Police Department. He was murdered outside of his parents' Chicago home May 19, 2010 when four men attempted to steal his motorcycle. The Bronze Star recipient and veteran of two Iraq deployments as well as a tour of duty performing airport security as part of Operation Noble Eagle joined the Chicago Police Department in 2007.
"As impressive as his uniformed contributions were to nation, state and community, they don't paint the entire picture," said Capt. Matthew MacDonald, Wortham's commander in Troop A. Wortham served as president of the Cole Park Advisory Council in Chatham, and worked to make the neighborhood safe for children to play in area parks as a youth mentor and community watch coordinator. His fellow Soldiers learned about these accomplishments after his death.
"In a way, Tom's humility is the genesis of this achievement award," MacDonald said. "Tom represents the best traditions of the colonial militias going back to the days of America's founding. His embodiment of the warrior ethos is enhanced and made all the more impressive by his spirited embrace of what it means to be a citizen in the fullest sense."
Wortham's father, retired Chicago Police Officer Thomas Wortham III, was on hand to help present the award, and thanked the Wisconsin National Guard for developing the award.
"It is a great honor to my son and my family and I," he said. "It's truly something that we never expected, and we're truly grateful to all of you for doing this. I think this will keep my son alive forever. Giving this award out every year, young people not even born yet will know who he was and what he stood for. And for that, I thank you."
"This is Tommy's award," MacDonald added. "I'm confident that, long after everyone in this room is gone, the Wisconsin National Guard will continue to find and recognize Soldiers and Airmen in our ranks worthy of his legacy."
The Thomas E. Wortham IV Achievement Award was announced last year during a halftime ceremony at Soldier Field, part of a Sept. 27 Monday Night Football game between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. The Chicago Police Department developed their own version of the Wortham Award, given to police officers.
Garrelts said the award lets the public know how Guard members give back to their communities.
"I'm going to do my best to get the word out about this award," he said.