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Peoria Air National Guard to welcome new commander

Col. Rusty Ballard is the incoming commander of the Illinois Air National Guard's 182nd Airlift Wing, based in Peoria.
Tim Shelley
Col. Rusty Ballard is the incoming commander of the Illinois Air National Guard's 182nd Airlift Wing, based in Peoria.

Col. Rusty Ballard of Morton, a combat pilot with over 28 years of service, will soon assume leadership of the 1,200 airmen enlisted in the Illinois Air National Guard’s (ANG) 182nd Airlift Wing, located in Peoria.

Ballard, who graduated from Argenta-Oreana High School in 1994 before earning a bachelor’s degree at Southern Illinois University (SIU) and a master’s degree from Webster University, will replace Col. Dan McDonough, who is retiring from the Air Force after 35 years, the past five spent in Peoria leading the 182nd. Ballard’s first day as commander of the 182nd will be June 4.

The new commander admitted he will have big shoes to fill when it comes to replacing McDonough, whom Ballard served under as a young Blackhawk helicopter pilot almost 20 years ago.

“I couldn’t say enough about Col. McDonough. He’s done great in everything he’s touched, he’s set a great example, and he has set me up very well to follow him,” said Ballard, who enlisted in the Illinois ANG in 1993 and attended SIU tuition-free under an ANG education grant while serving with the 1st Battalion, 106th Aviation detachment in Decatur. While at SIU he entered the Illinois ANG Officer Candidate School, earning a commission as an Army second lieutenant in 1998.

Ballard became an Army Aviation Officer in 2000, the same year he qualified as a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter pilot. He joined the 182nd as a C-130H Hercules Mobility Pilot in 2003. As a C-130H pilot Ballard deployed in support of global contingency operations including operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, Joint Forge and Atlantic Resolve.

“These missions involved transporting troops and supplies and air drops of various supplies in the combat theater,” Ballard said. “All of my C-130 experience has been (based) here in Peoria, and this allows me to impart my experience to the younger air crews coming up through the 182nd.”

From 2015 to 2018, Ballard served as both the ANG liaison and advisor to the Air Mobility Command’s Director of Operations located at Scott Air Force Base. There he coordinated the use of ANG assets in Air Force missions on an international level. He was then named Commander of the 182nd Operations Group in August 2018. While commanding the 182nd Operations Group, Ballard also served as the ANG's C-130 Operations Group Council chair from 2018 to 2021, representing 17 ANG C-130 Operations Groups as the main conduit for all ANG C-130 assets worldwide.

In civilian life, Ballard has worked as an Air Interdiction Agent for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. More recently, Ballard has flown cargo as an international and domestic pilot for Federal Express, based out of Memphis, Tennessee. He will be taking a hiatus from work at FedEx during his time as commander of the 182nd in Peoria.

His promotion means Ballard will be rising in rank from a “group” commander to “wing” commander within the 182nd. The promotion entails a lot of new duties and responsibilities, Ballard explained.

“As an operations group commander I am over two squadrons. As wing commander I will be responsible for this entire base and representing all the facets involved in making this place work,” he said.

Ballard, who makes his home in Morton with his wife, Andrea, daughter, Audrie and son, Andy, hopes that more young adults from central Illinois might consider a visit with an Air Force recruiter to see if the Illinois ANG might fit in with their plans for the future.

“I know there are a lot of people in our area who don’t know what the ANG is comprised of,” he said. “There could be a job for someone that is not combat-related, but just as important as a job that is combat-related. Come out, talk to the recruiters about getting experience in the military but also having a civilian life. Benefit from the education that the military provides, and open some doors.”

Though not all states provide the opportunity for tuition-free college education through the ANG, Illinois still does. This is an opportunity Ballard wants to make sure all high school seniors-- and others considering their college choices-- are aware of.

“I’ve benefitted by becoming a pilot and getting all of the things done I have during my career with the ANG. I had my college and a master’s degree paid for through military benefits,” Ballard said. “I’m grateful for all the opportunities the Illinois ANG has given me.”

Tim Alexander is a correspondent for WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.