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Meet 2020 Distinguished Alumni Award Recipient Gary Ebben ’82

Gary Ebben was inspired to go into military aviation by his older brother, Dale Ebben ’64, who was an Air Force fighter pilot.

Gary retired in 2019 as an assistant adjutant general for air of the Wisconsin Air National Guard. After earning his UW bachelor’s degree in electrical and computer engineering, Ebben pursued Air Force pilot training. As a command pilot, he has logged more than 3,000 flying hours, including 64 combat missions in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Ebben enlisted in the Wisconsin Air National Guard in 1981 while attending UW–Madison. He rose through the ranks to become vice commander of the 115th Fighter Wing, a Guard unit based in Madison that serves in Iraq and Afghanistan. After 9/11, Gary oversaw the unit’s rapid conversion to readiness for active-duty service. He then became commander of Wisconsin’s Volk Field Combat Readiness Training Center near Camp Douglas. At the time of his retirement, Ebben’s role entailed leading nearly 10,000 airmen and soldiers, as well as the entire Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs, which also includes Wisconsin Emergency Management.

Reflecting on his career, Ebben has been struck by the fact that “we have so many tremendous young men and women in this country — extraordinary individuals who are willing to serve their country and commit to a purpose bigger than themselves. I have been incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to wear the uniform and serve alongside them.”

Ebben has received 21 awards for his service, including the military’s Distinguished Service Medal, the National Guard Association Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Air Medal, and the Iraq Campaign Medal.

He has been involved with the UW’s ROTC program, providing shadowing and mentoring opportunities. He is active with the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy for high school at-risk youth, and he helped create the Wisconsin Guard’s STARBASE program for fifth-grade science, technology, engineering, and math. Ebben is also an active supporter of the Badger Honor Flight, a program that gives veterans the opportunity to see memorials that have been erected in their honor.

One of his former supervisors, the late Major General Al Wilkening, said that Ebben’s strengths combine an engineering mind with exceptional human-relations skills. “I’ve supervised hundreds of officers in my 40-year career,” he said, “and I’d put Gary in the top 1 percent.”

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