Meet the Man in Charge of the Wisconsin National Guard

Meet the former nuclear watchman who’s juggled three crises in his first nine months leading the Wisconsin National Guard.

For the better part of his first three months as commander of the Wisconsin National Guard, Maj. Gen. Paul Knapp spent most nights sleeping in his office. 

Knapp was sworn in as adjutant general of the Wisconsin Guard on March 5, when it was dealing with just one crisis – a widespread failure to address sexual misconduct in its ranks. Then two more crises showed up. 

The Guard and its 7,000 members took on a major role in the battle against COVID-19, conducting over 900,000 tests from March through late November and working multiple elections. Then, the civil unrest of the summer and fall came on, with the Guard being activated five times to respond to unrest in Milwaukee, Madison, Kenosha and Wauwatosa.

 Through it all, Knapp continued receiving updates every day on the investigation into sexual misconduct within the Guard and new allegations of such offenses. “It still is my No. 1. That never takes a back seat,” Knapp told MilMag in November. “It has to be a priority no matter what other things are going on. That topic is so important for the well-being of the soldiers and airmen, and for good order and discipline within the force, it has to remain a top priority.” 

Knapp’s predecessor, Maj. Gen. Donald Dunbar, resigned in late 2019 after it became clear that Guardsmen accused of sexual assault – like a quartet of men known as “The Four Horsemen” who “preyed” on women for sexual favors, or another man dubbed “the Harvey Weinstein of the Wisconsin Army National Guard,” according to soldiers who filed complaints – were able to escape with minimal or no punishment while survivors were repeatedly disciplined for coming forward. 

When interviewing with Gov. Tony Evers last January, Knapp told him “our number of [sexual assault] reports is going to go up” if he’s chosen to lead the Guard. Knapp wanted the troops he oversees to feel just as comfortable reporting misconduct as they should be uncomfortable about its presence within the Guard. 

An Antigo native and Wisconsinite through and through, Knapp loves fish fries, old fashioneds and potato pancakes. And he has a jovial sense of humor. Knapp planted roots with his wife, family physician Renee, and two kids in Whitefish Bay. They stayed here while he flew around the country (and world) from mission to mission. Leading the Guard was supposed to keep him home more, but we’ve already mentioned that whole sleeping-in-his-office (in Madison) thing.  

Even before becoming adjutant general, the 52-year-old was an ascendant military figure, leading the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center as a brigadier general before his current post.  

His illustrious career began at the Air Force Academy after high school, and Knapp was among the first airmen deployed to the Middle East after 9/11. As a weapons systems operator – the one who sits behind the pilot in F-15s and actually drops the bombs – the moments he remembers most are when he didn’t pull that powerful trigger. During one mission outside of Kabul, Knapp couldn’t be sure whether the trucks in his sights were Taliban or civilians fleeing the desert city. He didn’t drop any ordinance and counts that decision as one of the proudest moments of his career. 

The discretion to not act is something Knapp has looked to instill within the Wisconsin National Guard. Throughout 2020, many Wisconsinites who didn’t know they knew a Guard member learned it when their cousin or neighbor was called to respond to a crisis.  

When Knapp was in Kenosha, he reminded the 1,000 Guardsmen deployed with him of just that. “I would just reiterate to them, we were there for public safety, to protect people’s First Amendment right, and to remember, the people who we are dealing with on all sides – they’re all our neighbors and our friends,” he says. “We want cooler heads to prevail. We want to de-escalate.”


(Image by Milwaukee Magazine, Getty Images, PBS)

Commanding the Press Conference 

On Aug. 26, civic and law enforcement leaders in Kenosha held a press conference the afternoon after a terrifying night of civil unrest, and Maj. Gen. Paul Knapp seemed to be the only one not thoroughly frustrated by the proceedings. 

A militia-type group had showed up on the third night of protests and rioting following the police shooting of Jacob Blake three days earlier, and three protesters were shot, two fatally, by Illinois teen Kyle Rittenhouse. 

Kenosha County Sheriff David Beth (pictured above) was evasive and flustered from the start, knocking over a microphone while answering his first question from reporters. He would go on to claim he didn’t know Rittenhouse’s name – a detail that had been widely reported for hours. Police Chief Daniel Miskinis gruffly answered a few questions, declined to address others, denounced violence and said he wasn’t taking any more questions. “We’re done talking,” he said at one point as he stood at the podium.  

This was when Knapp, the camouflage-clad Wisconsin National Guard’s adjutant general, was summoned. His presence was compassionate and transparent but capable and no-nonsense. He clarified an answer to a previous question, finishing with “Does that make sense?”  

His first question was about exactly who activated the Guard. (It was Gov. Tony Evers, not President Donald Trump.) “Are you worried about the president tweeting about it as if it’s his decision, that it will escalate tensions here?” the reporter asked. Knapp replied flatly, “No, ma’am. I don’t worry about the president’s tweets.” And when asked about whether the violence of the previous night would lead to an expansion of the Guard’s role, he prefaced a mostly bureaucratic answer with, “Well, again, my condolences go out, and it was a tragedy that happened last night.”

– CHRIS DROSNER


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s January issue.

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Adam is a journalist who recently returned to his Wisconsin home after graduating from Drake University in December 2017. He interned with MilMag in the summer of 2015 and has been a continual contributor ever since. Follow him on social media @Could_Be_Rogan