Minnesota's National Guard has always stood at the ready to serve this state. But for the past two years, the demands on these selfless soldiers and airmen have been extraordinary.

Fortunately, so too are the 13,000 Minnesota men and women who wear the Guard uniform. They come from all over the state, all occupations, bound together by a single mission: showing up when they are most needed.

Since the start of 2020, Gov. Tim Walz has activated the Guard for 18 active-duty missions, with members serving some 82,870 "man days" on state active duty that year and a similar number projected for this year. As a Star Tribune story noted, that is 10 times more in two years than in the entire preceding decade, when the Guard served a total of 15,071 man days on 21 state active-duty missions.

Among the most difficult missions was when the Guard was mobilized during some of the darkest days Minnesota has endured recently — the civil unrest that erupted in the wake of George Floyd's killing. From there, it went on to face some of the toughest duty in one of the worst pandemics the world has known, going into nursing homes where COVID-19 was running rampant, to relieve exhausted health care workers.

The Guard also mobilized to help with mass vaccinations. It was activated during the trial of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, who killed Floyd, and again after the police-involved shooting of Daunte Wright. Last winter it opened armories for snow-stranded motorists, and this summer it fought the wildfires that ravaged parts of northern Minnesota.

Earlier this month, Walz activated 400 more Guard members to train as certified nursing assistants and nursing aides as delta variant cases in the state continued to mount and as preparations began for dealing with the new omicron variant.

Walz, who served 24 years in the Guard and achieved the rank of command sergeant major, told an editorial writer that he is "always super cautious about protecting the Guard. They're really good at what they do, and they will always say yes to what is asked of them.

"My responsibility as their commander in chief is to be thoughtful and judicious about the missions they are asked to do." Above all, Walz said, "We have a responsibility to provide clear missions with clear start and end dates, so we have to be precious with that kind of resource."

That's not all the Guard is doing. Walz said that "we have units in Afghanistan, Cuba, Djibouti, the Horn of Africa, Poland and a cyber protection team at Fort Meade, Maryland."

It's important to remember that these are not professional soldiers. These are Minnesotans who hold full-time civilian jobs, many as teachers, firefighters, construction and building trades members, police officers, small-business owners. Increasingly, Walz said, a high percentage are women. Yet they are held to the same exacting standards as active military, including fitness, education and training.

The National Guard itself has changed over time. Once known as "weekend warriors," Guard soldiers and airmen are now anything but. They have evolved into a unique go-to force that can be mobilized for state missions, such as dealing with floods and tornadoes, or federal missions that can take them across the world and into combat.

"There was a transformation from strategic reserves into an operational force," Walz told an editorial writer. "I watched it happen, starting the Reagan years." The change grew sharper in the '90s, "then really accelerated after 9/11."

"This is one of the best things America has ever done, is this force of citizen soldiers made up of our neighbors, who live and work here," Walz said. "They are now totally integrated into our national security and our state's response."

Along with everything else they've done, members of the Minnesota National Guard's 133rd Airlift Wing's Security Forces Squadron have been providing base security in Kuwait and assisting with closure operations in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, including over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Earlier this week, those airmen were able to return stateside two months ahead of schedule, which will allow them to spend the rest of the holidays with their families. "It's been a challenge for the unit, and these folks stepped up and they served honorably overseas, so we're very happy to have them home before the holidays," the Guard's Lt. Col. Jason Hull told KARE-11.

Minnesota owes its deepest thanks to these relatives, friends and neighbors who have given so much of their time and talent, sometimes risking their lives in the service of others. We are proud of each and every one of them.