Serving Commonwealth and Country

Serving Commonwealth and Country

By CW2 John W. Listman, Jr. (Ret.)
Historian, Virginia National Guard Historical Collection

In the 1980s-1990s the Recruiting Office of the Virginia National Guard used the phrase "Since 1607 - Serving Commonwealth and Country." As we approach the end of nearly a decade at war it is perhaps a fitting to look back and remember some of those who sacrificed more than we may ever know to secure the freedoms we treasure today and to look to future possibilities. This account will endeavor to journey back over four centuries and recall some of the people who paid the ultimate price during those events important to state and national history.  It also serves to look at contemporary events that impact on community, Commonwealth, and country.
 
You may recognize the names of persons who served their "Country" in the Virginia Guard and gained notoriety. These include Virginia Guard officers who later became American Presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Tyler. And there is Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and Jubal Early of Civil War fame. In modern times, we have Sergeants Earle Gregory and Frank Peregory, both of whom earned the Medal of Honor; and Secretary of the Army John 0.Marsh, Jr., a former lieutenant colonel in the Virginia Guard.

Before beginning to recall the stories of people and events important in the history of the Virginia militia and National Guard perhaps a quick mention should be made of several questions to clarify what you are about to read might be a help. What is the militia and National Guard-why does it exist and what does it do?

When the first English colonists arrived in America they brought with them an existing militia system developed over centuries. England, being an island nation, never had a need to have large standing armies like the countries of mainland Europe. The only threats had to come by sea and in the days of wind-powered ships there was always forewarning, such as during the Spanish Armada in 1588. To be prepared to meet impending threats all men within each county (which usually made up one or more regiments) were required to “muster” or ”mobilize” a day or two each year so their names could be entered on the rolls and they could at least familiarize themselves with weapons, usually furnished by the government, stored in a common location called an “armory.” The commanders of each of these regiments were the high-born men of the county, often lords of noble birth. The men were told they were expected to turn out when called for an emergency but in reality they were still civilian farmers or shop keepers and only part-time soldiers. Once the crisis passed they returned to their homes and trades. This was the system brought over from England. It was modified once the English arrived because there were constant threats for local natives and Spanish raiders. So part of the militia had to always be armed and in readiness in case of sudden attack. Today’s National Guard, the direct descendant of the colonial militia, carries on the tradition in a modern way. Most of our Soldiers and Airmen continue to be only part-timers with other jobs but they are highly trained and ready at any time protect lives, property and in a larger sense the state and nation from war or disaster.

The Colonial Era (1607-1774)
The Revolutionary War (1775-1783)
The New Republic (1783-1814)
The First Uniformed Volunteer Era (1815-1860)
The Civil War and Reconstruction (1861-1870)
The Second Uniformed Volunteer Era (1870-1902)
The Birth of the Virginia National Guard (1903-1916)
World War I (1917-1919)
The Interwar Period (1920-1940)
World War II (1941-1945)
The Cold War (1946-1989)
Operations Desert Shield/Storm (1990-1991)
Keeping the Peace Overseas and a New Headquarters At Home (1991-2001)
11 September 2001 Terrorist Attacks and the War on Radical Islam (2001-present)
Transformation and Out of State Duty (2005-Present)

 

The Colonial Era (1607-1774)

 

A woodcut illustration showing the surprise Indian attacks launched across Virginia in 1622. Woodcut by Theodor de Bry, taken from America Pars Decima, 1634.

There have been many unsung members of the state force over our 400 plus years. While most of us learned in school of Captain John Smith at "James Towne" in 1607 it is unclear who, within three weeks of the landing, was the first man killed during an Indian attack against the unfinished "James" fort. This luckless man was the first Virginia Guardsman to give his life for "Commonwealth and Country" (though it is unlikely he thought of it in those terms). Over the next 168 years, thousands served and many died (more from disease than combat) to expand the Virginia colony. As the colonists moved westward they often fought the natives over land rights. The Indians tried their best to resist, such as their surprise attacks of 1622 and 1644, when well-coordinated assaults across the colony threatened its continued existence. After the war started in 1644 the legislature authorized free-black colonists (mostly former slaves) to become part of the militia. Despite the natives best attempts nothing could stop the westward push by the colonists. As the area around Henrico (today’s Richmond) was settled in the 1650s, its militia combined with that of nearby Charles City County to organize a militia regiment in 1652, the heritage of which is carried by the 276th Engineer Battalion, the oldest continuous militia tradition in the state. By 1700 settlers were moving over the Blue Ridge Mountains and into the Shenandoah Valley. As enough colonists gathered around what is today the town of Staunton, the Augusta County Regiment was organized in 1741; today its lineage is carried by the Virginia Guard’s 116th Infantry. In the 1750s, with more colonists moving deeper into the wilderness, conflict soon erupted with French, who also claimed much of the same territory. Known as the French and Indian War (1755-1763) it brought to national attention George Washington, who as a Lieutenant Colonel of the Virginia Regiment, distinguished himself in covering the British army’s retreat after “Braddock’s Defeat.” The last colonial conflict fought by the Virginia militia was the Battle of Point Pleasant in what is now West Virginia. In 1774 the militia soundly defeated the warriors of several combined tribes and opened up large areas of the west (today’s Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia) to settlement.

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The Revolutionary War (1775-1783)

 

-“The Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown” oil painting by John Trumbull, 1797. It shows American General Benjamin Lincoln, Washington’s second in command, accepting the sword of surrender from British General William O’Hara, Lord Cornwallis’ second in command (Cornwallis, claiming illness, did not attend the surrender ceremony). Washington is seen just behind on the right of Lincoln. Note the French troops standing on the left. Trumbull was present at the surrender and painted this based upon sketches he made on this day. Courtesy Yale University Art Collection

With the start of the Revolution in 1775, most men in the Virginia militia volunteered to fight for liberty. Some already belonged to well-organized units such as the Culpeper Minute Men and immediately marched north to join the army being organized around Boston. Aside from George Washington, who was soon appointed as the commander of the Continental Army, other Virginia militiamen played important roles in winning American independence. Among these was Winchester's Daniel Morgan, who commanded a company of expert backwoods riflemen. They marched through cold and heavy snows with the army sent to capture Quebec, Canada, on New Year's Eve 1775. Though the attack failed Morgan proved himself a very able leader. By 1777 when a British army tried to come from Canada to take Albany, N.Y., Morgan, now a colonel commanding several rifle companies, helped to defeat them, leading to the first large British surrender of the war. In 1781 General Morgan was commanding a small army that devastated a larger British force at Cowpens, S.C. Other Virginia militia soldiers of note in this war include: General Hugh Mercer who helped gain the victory at Princeton; General Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee (future father of Robert E. Lee) who commanded a cavalry corps in the Continental Army and General George Rogers Clark who led a small army and captured much of the “far west” (today’s Indiana, Illinois and the western portions of Kentucky and West Virginia). While these men left their mark by being recognized for their leadership qualities, many thousands of other soldiers from the Old Dominion, though unheralded by name or deed, served in every theater of the war and thousands lay today in unmarked graves far from home.

During most of the conflict the state was spared much of the fighting but that changed in 1781 when several British armies converged on Virginia. Under the overall command of Lord Charles Cornwallis they soon found themselves bottled up in Yorktown by the combined American and French armies under the command of Washington. Cornwallis was compelled to surrender on 19 October 1781 effectively ending the war and guaranteeing American independence. Among the 19,000 allied troops Washington had under his command were eight Virginia militia regiments, in all numbering some 3,100 men.

Four future American presidents with Virginia militia service during their careers served during this war. Washington has already been mentioned; the other three being: Colonel’s Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. All three played various roles in raising, equipping and training militia units for use by the Continental Army. Monroe briefly command an “emergency regiment” raised during the Yorktown campaign.

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The New Republic (1783-1814)

 

A lead cartridge box plate believed to have been lost by a member of the Portsmouth Light Artillery while fighting from Craney Island to repel a British amphibious raid in 1813. Each soldier had a leather box attached to a strap slung over his left shoulder to carry his musket cartridges (bullets). Most military units of the period decorated the flaps of these boxes with metal plates bearing the unit number or some other type of symbolic representation of their unit. This piece, found in the 1950s, has two cannon tubes, indicating it was worn by an artilleryman. Courtesy Portsmouth Naval Museum

After the Revolution the country mostly turned to peace, except along the frontiers where occasional conflicts still flared with the Indians. Areas of Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia were all still considered part of Virginia and settlers moved into these regions in increasing numbers to grab new land. By 1787 the new Constitution was adopted and President George Washington was in office. Foremost among his efforts was the passage by Congress of the Militia Act of 1792. This Act outlined the federal and state roles in organizing, arming, training and use of the militia of the “several states” as a reserve for the Regular Army. Among its provisions was the requirement for each state to have an adjutant general to oversee all of the points noted along with the responsibility for the raising and dispatching to the Army forces requested in times of crisis. This Act remained the basis for the militia until it was replaced by the Militia Act of 1903 that lead directly to the creation of the modern National Guard.

Occurring simultaneously was the establishment of a two-tier militia system. Since the first colonists arrived in 1607 the militia had always required that every free white male (with some exceptions) was required to be in the militia and subject to call up in an emergency. After the Revolution, with most areas of Virginia no longer under immediate threat of foreign invasion the old system, known as the “enrolled militia”, began to give way to the “uniformed volunteer” system. This program saw young men volunteer to undergo military training and discipline on a part-time basis. The units were usually located in the largest town or city in the area, often the county seat. The men received no pay unless mobilized by the state or president. While their arms and ammunition were furnished by the state, all uniforms, armory rents and travel expenses had to be paid by the unit or men themselves. Drills were usually held for a couple of hours on the same evening each week and there was no provision for summer camps or training away from home. The Virginia Guard’s oldest continuous volunteer lineage is of the “Richmond Light Infantry Blues” which was organized in 1789 and remains an element of the 276th Engineer Battalion today.

In 1794 President Washington was faced with a tax revolt in western Pennsylvania. Known as the “Whiskey Rebellion,” he took quick steps to suppress it. He mobilized militia soldiers from four states, including Virginia, and moved them to the area of the revolt, which quickly then collapsed. This marked the first time a president called out the militia to preserve the peace and restore order as outlined by the Constitution.

Conflict with Britain erupted again in 1812. Virginia’s initial role was small, with a brigade of about 400 militia volunteers under the command of Brigadier General Joel Leftwich from Bedford County, moving to garrison Fort Meigs in Ohio over the winter of 1812-1813. The fort was poorly supplied and soon found itself under siege by Indians loyal to the British. By the time relief arrived in the spring nearly half the garrison was dead, most from starvation and disease. The remnants returned home that spring. At about the same time a British fleet sailed into Chesapeake Bay and began raiding coastal areas to burn stored tobacco and other goods and to destroy any shipping that could be used against them. On June 22, 1813 they attempted to land a raiding party on Craney Island near Norfolk but were repelled by militia forces including the “Portsmouth Light Artillery”, which had been organized as a volunteer company in 1809. The Light Artillery is credited with sinking an enemy warship, forcing the British to withdraw. Today the lineage of the Portsmouth Light Artillery is carried by Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 2nd Battalion, 183rd Cavalry in Portsmouth. As the action took place at Craney Island, a combined force of “enrolled” and “volunteer” militia was organized in Richmond by the adjutant general. Known as the “First Elite Corps” among those serving in one of the volunteer units was Captain John Tyler of the “Charles City Rifle Company” and the future seventh American president. The Corps arrived too late to see any action.

During the British invasion to capture Washington, D.C., in August 1814, several regiments of Virginia militia were mobilized but took no active role in the fighting. Among those serving was Supreme Court Chief Justice and Virginia militia General John Marshall. The war ended at the end of 1814 with no further impact on the state. 

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The First Uniformed Volunteer Era (1815-1860)

 

This image is one of the most misidentified photographs published about the Civil War. Usually referred to as ‘young Confederates off to war’ it actually shows members of Company A, First Virginia Infantry, the “Richmond Grays,” at John Brown’s execution in 1859. The Valentine Museum

The decades between the War of 1812 and the Civil War were mostly peaceful in the Commonwealth, though tensions over slavery were increasing to fever pitch in the 1850s. This period saw a rapid decline in the “enrolled” militia and a large number of new “volunteer” units being organized. Due to poor performance by some officers and units in the recent war, the adjutant general began taking steps to raise the professional standards of the militia officer corps. In 1820 he had a book entitled The Military Laws of Virginia published and distributed to each colonel so they could in turn pass its knowledge down to their lower officers. This appears to be the first time the state made an active effort to reach out and share information with subordinates as to what their duties and responsibilities were within the state force. Taking an even bolder step to create a more professional force the state established the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in 1839. This school, based upon the Army’s Military Academy at West Point, offered a free education to any white male who qualified on condition they agreed that upon graduation they would serve as an officer in the state militia. Many of the future leaders of Confederate armies during the Civil War had attended or graduated from VMI. And one of its professors, Major Thomas Jackson, would gain national fame during the war.

The only major conflict in this period, the war against Mexico, had no direct impact on the state. However to support the war effort the Commonwealth raised a single regiment designated as the First Regiment of Virginia Volunteers in 1846. As the name implies, all the men were volunteers as there was no law allowing the federal government to mobilize militia units for overseas service. Among those companies furnishing large numbers of volunteers was the “Richmond Grays” which had only organized as a volunteer company in 1844. The regimental adjutant was Major Jubal Early who would become a prominent Confederate general in the Civil War. The regiment sailed to Texas and marched into northern Mexico to join General Zachary Taylor’s army. But the war had moved south with General Winfield Scott’s advance on Mexico City so the Virginians fought no battles, instead they primarily served as convoy guards. On occasion they fought skirmishes with bandits or guerrillas but only one soldier is listed as killed in action during this tour. In fact, as with all previous wars, disease was the big killer; out of a regiment numbering 938 men when it arrived in Mexico, only 856 returned home in 1848. A handful deserted but most of this loss was due to illness. One point of interest, while on duty in Saltillo, Mexico, the 2nd Battalion of the regiment, while standing in formation on a city street, became one of the first American military organizations ever to have its image made in a combat theater by the new technology called “photography”.

As noted above, sectional tensions over slavery increased during the 1850s. Not that this was the only time in this period. In fact, in August 1831 the largest slave insurrection in American history occurred in Virginia. Known as the “Nat Turner Slave Revolt” (named after its leader) it occurred in Southampton County. Only numbering about 70 members, Turner’s small band killed approximately 60 whites of all ages and both sexes. Within two days the revolt was crushed by the local militia aided by sailors and marines from two warships stationed at Norfolk. A total of 3,400 militiamen were mobilized but most arrived after the trouble ended. Almost all of the participants (and many innocent blacks) were killed by the militia or mob violence wherever they were found. Turner was caught and later executed. This revolt put a scare into all the residents of the state, many of the whites killed had not even owned slaves, so no one felt safe. In response volunteer militia companies sprang up across the state, but as the decade waned many were disbanded as it appeared no further trouble was likely. However, tensions concerning slavery continued to grow on a national level such that by 1859 all that was needed was a spark to set it off. That spark came on 16 October 1859 when abolitionist John Brown led a small force into Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now W.Va.), to capture the federal arsenal and distribute the guns to slaves so they could fight for their freedom. His raid quickly fell apart and the local militia, with assistance from units such as the “Continental Morgan Guard” from Winchester, pushed the raiders into the town firehouse and held them in place until U.S. Marines under the command of Army Colonel Robert E. Lee arrived from Washington and captured the entire group. Brown was tried and executed by the Commonwealth for promoting slave insurrection. Since this was considered a state matter most of the security for his trial and execution was composed of state militia units including the “Richmond Howitzers” and “Richmond Grays”. Again fate put a Virginia militia unit in front of a photographer’s camera, this time members of the Grays made an image that would (wrongly) come to represent young men going off to the Civil War nearly two years away. The most immediate impact of Brown’s raid was a huge increase in the number of state volunteer companies, from only 43 before the raid to nearly 200 by the end of 1860 and the election of President Abraham Lincoln. War was coming.

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The Civil War and Reconstruction (1861-1870)

 

General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was a professor at the Virginia Military Institute before the Civil War. As such he held the rank of major in the state militia, making him a Virginia Guardsman. U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center

The opening shots of the Civil War occurred in Charleston Harbor, S.C., on the morning of 12 April 1861. Virginia had not yet succeeded to join the Confederacy though it did so on 17 April. At the beginning of the war, before Jackson and Early became household names, there was Captain John 0. Marr of the "Warrenton Rifles," who gained fame when he was killed on 1 June 1861 at Fairfax Courthouse, becoming the first of 15,000 Virginians to die during the war.

There are so many stories to tell of Virginia soldiers during conflict, too many for this work. The most prominent state Guardsman to emerge during the war was Brigadier General Thomas Jackson, a professor at VMI when the war started. He was given command of a brigade of five infantry regiments plus a battery of artillery, all composed of men from the Shenandoah Valley. During the climax of the Battle of First Manassas (Virginia) on 21 July 1861, as other Confederate forces were falling back in some disorder, Jackson had his brigade form a line on Henry House Hill and hold their ground. When a fellow southern general saw Jackson’s line hold, he shouted to his retreating men “There stands Jackson like a stonewall; Rally on the Virginian’s!” His soldiers rallied and the Confederates won the day. Jackson became immortalized forever as “Stonewall Jackson” and the descendant unit of his famed brigade, today’s 116th Infantry, officially carries the designation as the “Stonewall Brigade”; the only Confederate brigade designation recognized by the Army.

Probably not surprisingly, Virginians fought in every major engagement of the Army of Northern Virginia; but they also served in the mountains of West Virginia and with the Army of Tennessee. Other fought along the coast of North Carolina. All told the state fielded about 200,000 soldiers during the war, the largest number contributed by any Confederate state. As with the Revolution, this war, the largest conflict ever fought on American soil, also ended in the Commonwealth when General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House on 9 April 1865.

Following the end of the war all the southern states entered a period known as “Reconstruction” under federal martial law. This allowed the federal government to be sure the rights of former slaves, who were now freed, were protected and that southern laws and institutions would safeguard those rights. The state was occupied by federal troops and there was no organized militia presence until Reconstruction ended in Virginia in 1870.

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The Second Uniformed Volunteer Era (1870-1902)

 
Members of the 6th Virginia Volunteer Infantry on mobilization day for the Spanish American War in 1898. Like the three white Virginia regiments they saw no combat and returned home in 1899. Once they were released from active duty no African American would serve in the state force again until 1964. Courtesy Virginia State University Library

As soon as the last federal troops left the state in late 1870 the reinstated adjutant general began reorganizing what was now known as the “Virginia Volunteers” (the direct forerunner of today’s Virginia National Guard). This force was composed entirely of uniformed volunteer companies. The enrolled militia which had existed since 1607 was gone forever. As before the war, once the unit was organized and uniformed (at its own expense although during the coming years some state and federal monies did become available to help buy field uniforms), the units applied to the adjutant general for arms and other equipment. Once inspected they were taken on the state military rolls and consider available for state service if and when needed. Except the brief Spanish-American War (1898-1899) all Guard duty in this period was confined to the state.

As the Volunteers began organizing their companies something happened that had not occurred before the war. African Americans (mostly former slaves) were now joining the force. They served in all-black units commanded by men of their own race, following Army policy of the time. Starting with the 1871 organization of the “Attucks Guard” (named for Crispis Attucks, the black man killed by British troops in the Boston Massacre in 1770), by the mid-1880s there were 20 black companies in communities across the state, from Tidewater to Staunton and Danville to Fredericksburg. Due to a severe economic downturn in the late 1880s many Volunteer companies, white as well as black, were disbanded because they could not meet the minimum standards in personnel. By 1898 there were only eight black companies remaining in the Volunteers.

During this “gilded age” most communities, even major cities, had only small police forces. Yet it was a time of great unrest and even riots over matters ranging from racial, political and labor-management issues. This was an age before there was a state police force so when serious trouble either threatened or was in fact occurring, it was the Volunteers who were called upon to “aid civil authorities” (today referred to as “State Active Duty”) in restoring and maintaining order. In almost every year during this period can be found accounts of one or multiple units being placed in harm’s way to defend lives and property.

Two examples of the ‘aid’ are representative of the role played by the volunteers during this period. In January 1887 there was a race riot in Newport News, with whites rampaging through black neighborhoods terrorizing peaceful families. The governor called out two white and one black company from Richmond, put them on a train in the middle of the night and sent them to quell the disturbance. When they arrived in town the white companies set up a cordon around the impacted area and the black company patrolled the streets within the zone, on the watch for trouble. Peace was quickly reestablished and the men returned home the next evening.

In September 1893, two members of the "Roanoke Light Infantry" were wounded while exchanging gunfire with a mob storming the city jail in an attempt to lynch a man accused of rape. Ten rioters were killed with at least 20 more being wounded. The Volunteers succeeded in stopping the mob from reaching the prisoner. While gun battles with rioters was not that uncommon in this period, this remains the highest number of killed and injured in any incident involving the Virginia Guard since the Civil War.

Following the American declaration of war against Spain over Cuban independence in April 1898, the Virginia Volunteers raised four infantry regiments for overseas service (again, as with the Mexican War, every man had to individually volunteer, there was no unit mobilization as we understand the term today). Three regiments were composed of white soldiers and one, the 6th Virginia Volunteers, was composed entirely of African Americans, though the regimental commander was a white Regular Army officer. None of these units saw combat. Only one, the 4th Virginia, served overseas; as part of the garrison for Havana, Cuba, during the armistice leading to the treaty ending the war. All four units were released by spring 1899. Due to issues concerning racial discrimination during their tour the officers of the 6th Virginia decided not to reorganize their companies back in the state force and no African American would serve again in the Virginia Guard until 1964.

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The Birth of the Virginia National Guard (1903-1916)

 
Members of the 1st Brigade, Virginia Volunteers arrive by train at the State Rifle Range at Virginia Beach in July 1913. The brigade consisted of all state troops except the coast artillery companies. Virginia National Guard Historical Collection

During the recent war many problems in the existing volunteer system, from poor officer training and leadership to obsolete weapons, became very apparent to the Army. In 1903, under pressure from President Theodore Roosevelt (himself a former New York Guardsman and hero of the recent war) and the Army, the Congress enacted the first of several laws changing how the volunteer system would function to be a ready reserve for the Army. Among the most striking provisions was the mandate that Guardsmen had to drill a minimum of 48 periods a year along with 15 days of “annual training” (commonly called summer camp). For the first time all soldiers received Army pay (based upon their rank) for annual training but not drill pay until 1916. All enlisted men were now issued standard army uniforms (officers, as always, have to buy their own) and were to be trained to Army standards. To receive federal monies and arms, units and their armories now had to meet minimum standards as determined by Army inspectors. Officers too had to meet Army standards in order to receive “Federal Recognition” to hold a commission. In 1916 two provisions had a direct impact on Guard service in the Commonwealth. First, Guardsmen now for the first time began receiving drill pay. And as a requirement of the law the “Virginia Volunteers” designation made way for the “Virginia National Guard”.

As these new mandates began to take effect the state faced a problem. It had never had a state camp for its Guard units to train as now dictated by the new law. So in 1912 it acquired 63 acres of land south of the little village of Virginia Beach and created the State Rifle Range (later designations would be the State Military Reservation [SMR] and Camp Pendleton). The first troops arrived by train for annual training in 1913 and, except for periods of war, the post has remained in use by the Virginia Guard ever since.

While these changes were occurring two events, one across the Atlantic and the other along the border with Mexico, would have a direct impact on Guard service for the rest of the decade. World War I started in Europe in August 1914. The American government declared its neutrality but German provocation was growing each year the war continued. And in 1916 Mexican bandits raided Columbus, N.M., killing a number of American citizens before fleeing back over the border. President Woodrow Wilson ordered the Army to pursue them into Mexico and ordered nearly 200,000 National Guardsmen to active duty to patrol and protect the border against further raids. The Virginia Guard mobilized two infantry regiments, a battalion of field artillery, one squadron of cavalry and companies of engineers and signal troops, in all nearly 4,000 men. The units were deployed to camps in southern Texas near the Mexican border. By law no Guardsman was authorized to cross into Mexico. They conducted patrols along the Rio Grande and held wargames in the very hot and humid south Texas weather.

With so many men gathered on the border the Army, anticipating America’s eventual entry into the European war against the Germans, began having the troops conduct mock trench warfare drills and other training ‘just in case.’ For instance, the 1st Virginia Field Artillery Battalion conducted a forced march through desert-like conditions, to toughen up men and animals, to arrive at a special camp set up so they could ‘live fire’ their cannons. By the end of 1916 peace along the border was restored enough for the Guard units to begin returning home. The last unit, the 1st Squadron, Virginia Cavalry, arrived home in Richmond in mid-March but was not released from active duty. Instead it was deployed to patrol rail yards, bridges, dams and other vital infrastructure against sabotage as America prepared to go to war.

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World War I (1917-1919)

 

Sergeant Earle Gregory wearing his Medal of Honor (from an unidentified newspaper clipping). Like most heroes he has had several places named in his honor. Besides the Cadet Corps drill team at Virginia Tech, a state roadside marker was erected in 1997 (his 100th birthday) outside of the former Chase City Armory, also named for him, explaining who he was and what he did to be honored. Courtesy Earle Davis Gregory Papers, Special Collections, University Libraries, Virginia Tech

America declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917. While the 1st Squadron remained on active duty most other Virginia Guard units were not mobilized for several months, allowing them to recruit to fill their ranks to wartime strength. By July all were on active duty and most were soon moved to Camp McClellan, Alabama, to begin training.

The first units called up were companies of Virginia National Guard Coast Artillery that were assigned to reinforce the forts around Hampton Roads including Fort Monroe. Eventually, as it became apparent the German Navy was not going to sail into Chesapeake Bay, four of these companies were reassigned either as military police for the 42nd “Rainbow” Division or as batteries in the newly organized 60th Artillery Battalion; all four saw combat in France.

The Virginia Guard mobilized three small infantry regiments; too small to effectively fight in the trench warfare that was the Western Front in France in 1917. So once at McClellan the Army combined them into one large regiment redesignated as the 116th Infantry, an element of the newly organized 29th Division. The same held true for Virginia’s single field artillery regiment; it was reorganized and redesignated as the 111th Field Artillery and also assigned to the 29th Division. In addition, the 1st Squadron, Virginia Cavalry was converted and redesignated as the 104th Ammunition Train, 29th Division. 

While at McClellan the 29th Division, composed of Guard units from Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia, adopted the nickname it still carries today, “Blue and Gray” reflecting the fact that it had units which fought each other during the Civil War but now stood together against a common foe. Its insignia is based on the Korean symbol for Life, the “ying-yang” in the colors blue and gray.

By spring 1918 the 29th was ready to join the fight. It sailed to France and entered the frontlines in August in the area of Alsace. It first actions were minor, with few losses but they served to prepare the men for what lay ahead. On 8 October 1918 the 29th was an assault element in the great Allied attack known as the Meuse Argonne Offensive. Spearheading one section of the attack against the well-fortified defenders was the 116th Infantry. During the first morning of the battle Sergeant Earle Gregory of the 116th Infantry earned the Medal of Honor, the first Virginia Guardsman to receive the award. By the end of the offensive in late October, as the 29th was pulled out of the line to rest (the war ended on November 11 so this ended the 29th’s combat role), a total of 34 state Guardsmen had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC-the Army’s second highest award for combat valor). Among them was Captain Robert Conrad of Winchester who was the highest ranking Virginia Guardsman killed in the war. All together 371 men serving in Virginia Guard units died during the war; most in combat but others from disease including the Spanish Influenza. Though the war ended in November 1918 it was not until May 1919 that the 29th Division returned home and its men were released from active duty. Communities across the state held parades and banquets in their honor.

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The Interwar Period (1920-1940)

 
Members of the “Farmville Guard”, Company G, 2nd Battalion, 116th Infantry standing guard at a bridge on the outskirts of Danville in the winter of 1930-1931. Farmville Armory Collection

Though many people said World War I was so terrible that it was “the war to end all war” others knew that probably was not true and planned accordingly. In the early 1920s the Army reorganized the 29th Division, now composed of Guard units from the District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia. The major Commonwealth components were the 1st Virginia Infantry (later redesignated as the 176th Infantry), 116th Infantry, 111th Field Artillery and several smaller units including the 29th Tank Company and 29th Signal Company. In addition, the 246th Coast Artillery combined the various coast artillery companies that had existed during the war into one, non-divisional, regiment.

In 1929 the stock market crashed and the economy moved into the “Great Depression.” One of the effects of this was a number of labor strikes, often turning violent. In November 1930 workers at the Dan River Mills in Danville went on strike. Some violence occurred and the governor mobilized the entire 116th Infantry, 887 men, and had them stationed in Danville to prevent more trouble. At the end of their 60-days of state active duty the soldiers of the 116th were relieved by elements of the 246th Coast Artillery. The strike finally ended in March 1931. One Guard officer died in an accident and one civilian was shot and killed trying to run a road block. During this period more than 1,200 Virginia Guardsmen served, the largest call up in aid to civilian authorities since the Nat Turner Revolt in 1831 and the largest in the 20th century. 

Significant change came to the Guard when, in 1932, the last of the horses of the 111th Field Artillery were turned in for trucks to tow their guns and carry their equipment. The 29th Tank Company received newer tanks in the mid-1930s to replace their obsolete World War I models. And units began receiving wireless radios to supplement and eventually replace their field telephones. These radios proved their worth in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane which hit Tidewater in 1936. The on-site commander, Colonel William Sands of the 111th Field Artillery, was able to advise on the status and coordinate recovery efforts with the governor and adjutant general in Richmond who were unable to get to the scene due to blocked roads. And the new trucks also proved much more useful in helping in the recovery than horses would have been.

As the 1930s drew to a close trouble was brewing again overseas. Training took on added significance, especially after the Nazi’s invaded Poland on 1 September 1939 and World War II in Europe began. As with the last war, America declared its neutrality but after the Germans overran Western Europe, including the capture of France in June 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt began laying the groundwork for America’s future involvement. He mobilized the entire National Guard for one year’s “emergency” training. The first Virginia Guard unit called up was the 246th Coast Artillery which reported to Fort Monroe in September 1940. The Virginia elements of the 29th Division entered active duty on 3 February 1941 and moved to Fort Meade, Maryland, to begin their active duty training.

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World War II (1941-1945)

 
While waiting on the deck of his troop transport ship to load into a landing craft on the morning of D-Day Sergeant George Kobe, of Roanoke’s Company D, 116th Infantry, passed this dollar bill around gathering signatures from as many of his comrades as possible. At least six of the men who wrote their names (some are illegible) were killed later that day. Virginia National Guard Historical Collection

For most of 1941 the 29th trained at Meade. But in late summer it was moved by truck to North Carolina to take part in the First Army Maneuvers. The wargames ended in early December and the soldiers were returning to Meade and planned holiday leaves when word came of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. America was now at war. 

To fight the new, more mobile type of war being waged in Europe Army planners decided to make divisions smaller and more flexible than they were for World War I. Part of this plan called for only three infantry regiments instead of the existing four. So the 176th Infantry (formerly the 1st Virginia) was transferred from the 29th to the garrison of Washington, D.C. It would see no combat during the war. The 29th Tank Company was assigned with other Guard tank companies to the newly organized 191st Tank Battalion. It would see 536 days in combat, the most of any Virginia Guard unit in the war. During its fighting across Germany in 1945 it helped to liberate Dachau Concentration Camp.

The 116th remained in the 29th along with two infantry regiments from Maryland. The 111th Field Artillery Regiment was broken into two parts; the 111th Field Artillery Battalion, three firing batteries now armed with 105mm howitzers to give direct support to frontline infantry; and the 227th Field Artillery Battalion, three batteries armed with heavier 155mm howitzers for longer range fire. Both remained part of the division. And the 29th itself was reorganized and redesignated as the 29th Infantry Division (to differentiate it from airborne, armor, cavalry or mountain divisions being created in the force).

 The 29th arrived in Britain in October 1942 and immediately began intensive training. For a period of time in early 1943 it was the only American division in the UK. The Army had been experimenting with the use of Rangers, specially trained infantrymen used on behind the lines reconnaissance missions and raids to disrupt enemy forces. The 29th was instructed to organize the “29th Ranger Battalion” to be trained by the British Commandos. After extensive training the battalion conducted a couple of small raids but it was inactivated in December 1943 and its men returned to their parent units to share the added skills they had learned with the comrades.

As planning for the invasion of France across the English Channel was taking shape, sometime in late 1943 it was determined that the 29th would play a crucial role in the initial seaborne assault. For the spearhead of this attack the 116th Infantry was selected. The men practiced beach landing techniques for months. By May 1944 they and tens of thousands of other American and allied soldiers all over Britain were ready and anxious to get at the enemy.

The morning of 6 June 1944, to be known forever as “D-Day,” saw the largest invasion in history launched against five beaches on the coast of Normandy, France. One beach in particular, codenamed “Omaha” will always be remembered in Virginia history as “bloody Omaha” due to the more than 800 members of the 116th Infantry who were killed, wounded or missing in storming ashore in the face of a devastating enemy fire from the cliffs in front of them. Despite the high losses the survivors gained the high ground and bought with their blood a foothold that allowed follow up forces to pass through and continue the assault.

The 111th also took part on D-Day but suffered misfortune. Its howitzers were loaded into amphibious trucks, called “ducks”, but the rough Channel waters proved too much for them and all but one sank before reaching shore. So those gunners who managed to make the beach had no weapons. Their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Thornton Mullins from Richmond, began gathering clusters of men, finding them weapons from nearby casualties, and leading them in assaults against enemy fortifications. They succeeded in reducing several before Mullins was killed. For his heroic actions on D-Day Mullins was posthumously awarded the DSC, the only member of the 111th to ever earn the decoration. A total of 32 members of the battalion died in helping to gain a foothold on Omaha Beach.

Two days after D-Day Technical Sergeant Frank Peregory of Company K, 116th Infantry from Charlottesville, became the second Virginia Guardsman to earn the Medal of Honor when he single-handedly killed or captured 30 enemy soldiers defending a trench line. Unfortunately he was killed in combat six days later so his posthumous award was presented to his widow.

Though D-Day is the most dramatic day of the war in Virginia Guard history, the war did not end on that day. It lasted over eleven more months, until 8 May 1945, and saw thousands of other solders of the 29th killed or wounded as the American forces slowly drove the German armies back out of France and across the Rhine River into Germany. The war for the Blue and Gray ended on the banks of the Elbe River deep inside Germany. The river was selected as the dividing boundary between the western allies and the armies of the Soviet Union. Everything to the west was to be “free” while the people to the east would live most of the next half century under communist rule. Just as one war was ending the groundwork for the next, a “Cold War”, was being laid.

The 29th performed occupation duties in Germany until the division returned home in January 1946 and was released from active duty. During its 335 days in combat operations the 116th Infantry suffered 7,113 men killed, wounded or missing. Considering an infantry regiment normally consisted of 1,700 men, this means the 116th turned over personnel more than three times. The 111th Field Artillery Battalion lost 43 men killed in action, 32 of them on D-Day. At least 27 members of Virginia-based Guard units received the DSC for heroism.

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The Cold War (1946-1989)

 
When the 149th Fighter Squadron, Virginia Air National Guard, was organized in 1946 it flew the P-47 “Thunderbolt” that was used primarily as a ground attack aircraft. Virginia National Guard Historical Collection

During the 43 years of the Cold War, many changes occurred in the Virginia Guard, perhaps none more significant than the organization in 1946 of the 149th Fighter Squadron in Sandston, the Commonwealth’s first Air National Guard unit. From this point forward when speaking of specific Virginia Guard service, either Army or Air, the following abbreviations will be used:

Virginia Army National Guard-VAARNG
Virginia Air National Guard-VAANG

While many of the pre-war units, such as the 116th Infantry and 111th Field Artillery, were reorganized in the VAARNG in the mid to late 1940s, new units were organized into the force to meet the new threats posed by the Soviets. The most obvious of these were the antiaircraft artillery (AAA) battalions created to defend Washington, D.C., and Hampton Roads from air attack. Initially armed with guns firing “flak” these were, in the mid-1950s, replaced by Nike missiles capable of destroying enemy aircraft before they could hit their targets. And the structure of the state force expanded beyond only combat arms to include specialized support units including military police, medical, transportation, engineers, signal, data processing and even a military history detachment.

The United States engaged in several conflicts or near conflicts during this period, but only two had a direct impact on the Virginia Guard. The first was the Korean War (1950-1953) which saw five VAARNG units (including three AAA elements) mobilized and deployed to bases in the U.S. to free up Regular Army soldiers for duty in Korea. For the first time the 149th Fighter Squadron, VAANG, was also mobilized but it too remained in the states. No Virginia Guard unit fought in Korea, though many of the mobilized soldiers and airmen (primarily World War II veterans) did serve as individual replacements. All units were released by 1955.

The next and last mobilization in this period came on 1 October 1961. The Soviets built a wall around their portion of the German city of Berlin and threatened to take over the Allied portion of the city. In response to this threat President John Kennedy mobilized selected units of the National Guard. The VAARNG had two units, one a field artillery battalion and the other an engineer company, mobilized but neither served overseas. The VAANG’s 149th Fighter Squadron was again mobilized but it too stayed in the U.S. Fortunately tensions eased with no fighting and all Guardsmen were released by the end of August 1962.

While there was a limited Guard mobilization for the Vietnam War (1961-1973) no units from Virginia were called up. Some members did volunteer for active duty including Captain Harry Rose who graduated from the Virginia Officer Candidate School in 1966 and was killed while serving in Vietnam in 1969. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star Medal for heroism.

With the end of the war in Vietnam the American military transitioned from relying on conscription (the draft) to an all-volunteer force. Since the end of the Civil War the Virginia Guard has always been a volunteer force; with many of its men choosing to join as a way of doing their military obligation while attending school or working and raising their families. With no draft the pressure fell off for military service and Guard recruiting dropped accordingly. To help remedy the situation, two untapped pools of potential recruits opened up in the 1970s.

African Americans had belonged to the Virginia Guard between 1871-1899. But it was not until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s brought pressure on the state that blacks were again permitted to serve. The first few joined in the mid to late 1960s but their participation was slow to pick up significant numbers. This began to change as the need for more manpower increased with the end of the draft. Serious efforts were made to recruit minorities and these proved successful. By 1990 approximately 20% of the Virginia Guard was composed of African Americans and other minorities.

No women were permitted to belong to the National Guard until Congress enacted a law in 1956 opening a few select positions for them to fill, mostly as nurse-officers. No enlisted women were yet permitted. It was not until 1965 that the 192nd Tactical Clinic, VAANG, accepted two female nurses as part of its hospital operation that the state force got it first Guardswomen. Since the VAARNG had no medical units authorized nurses, there were no spaces available for women to join the Army Guard. This changed when in 1972 Congress amended the law to allow enlisted women to be accepted. The VAARNG got its first female soldier in 1973. By 1990 approximately seven percent of the Virginia Guard consisted of women soldiers and airmen.

Two major organizational events occurred to the state force during this period. The VAANG in 1962 was reorganized around its flying unit, the 149th Fighter Squadron, to become the 192nd Tactical Fighter Group. The Group contained all the elements (maintenance, ordnance, medical, administrative, etc.) to keep the 149th operational. In addition, several specialty VAANG units were organized separate from the 192nd. These included the 203rd Rapid Engineers Deployable Heavy Operations Repair Squadron, Engineers (commonly known as RED HORSE) and the 200th Weather Flight.

On the Army Guard side, the famous 29th Infantry Division was inactivated in 1968 due to budgetary and other concerns. The Virginia elements of the 29th were first assigned to Pennsylvania’s 28th Infantry Division and later were organized into the 116th Infantry Brigade (Separate). With the rapid increase in Guard strength during the “Reagan Build-Up” of the 1980s, under the leadership of Secretary of the Army (and former Virginia Army Guard lieutenant colonel) John O. Marsh, Jr., the 29th Infantry Division was brought back on line in 1985 as a Virginia-Maryland organization. It was and remains today headquartered at Fort Belvoir, Va.

One final, and perhaps the most important, event occurred in this period, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989. When the Berlin Wall was opened up it marked the end of communist domination of Eastern Europe. Many people began speaking of a “peace dividend,” that the need for a large standing military should be at an end too. Future events would soon moderate that opinion.

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Operations Desert Shield/Storm (1990-1991)

 

A MEDEVAC crew from the 986th Medical Company (AA) stands beside their UH-1 “Huey” helicopter in Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm in 1991. Virginia National Guard Historical Collection

On 2 August 1990 the army of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded the neighboring nation of Kuwait. President George H.W. Bush immediately began sending troops to defend Saudi Arabia while getting the U.N. to demand the Iraqis leave Kuwait. For the next five-months American and Allied forces continued to build up in the Saudi desert. By the beginning of 1991 it was apparent Hussein was not going to leave willingly, but that he would have to be forced out. During this five-month period, designated as “Operation Desert Shield” (to protect Saudi Arabia) eight VAARNG units were mobilized and deployed to the Gulf. Two more VAARNG units were mobilized but not deployed as the war ended before they could arrive. No VAANG units were mobilized but about 20 individual airmen volunteered for active duty.

The war, designated as “Operation Desert Storm,” opened in the early morning hours of 16 January 1991, with massive and well-directed air attacks against Iraqi command and control centers. The air war continued around the clock for the next five-weeks, until there were few targets left to attack from the air. The ground war began on 23 February. The conflict ended just 100 hours later, on 28 February as a resounding American victory.

Those VAARNG units serving were all combat support units including two truck companies, two engineer headquarters companies, a helicopter aero medical evacuation detachment, one company of military police and another of personnel services plus a military history detachment. In total 710 Virginia Guard personnel (including 105 females) served in theater. None were killed or wounded in combat. One soldier, Specialist Troy Boring of the 1032nd Transportation Company, received an Army Commendation Medal with V device for Valor for saving other soldiers following a missile strike that destroyed their barracks. And Private First Class Pamela Gay, from the 183rd Personnel Company, died in a traffic accident after the war ended.

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Keeping the Peace Overseas and a New Headquarters At Home (1991-2001)

 
Members of Company C, 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry on guard at the Sava River Bridge in Bosnia in 1998. Virginia National Guard Historical Collection

With the end of the Cold War new missions overseas in places few people had ever heard of before saw Virginia Army and Air personnel serving from the sands of Egypt to the snows of Bosnia. “Peacekeeping” and “nation building” became the new phrases often used to describe military, including Guard, service.

Following the end of Desert Storm Saddam Hussein began a campaign against internal opponents including the ethic Kurds located in northern Iraq. Hussein’s military, using helicopters not prohibited by the peace treaty ending the war, attacked population centers causing thousands of civilians to flee their villages. The UN stepped in and created “no fly zones” over north and south Iraq and set up patrols of fighter jets to enforce the restrictions. From December 1993-January 1994, 47 members of the 192nd Fighter Group, including pilots and maintenance crews, deployed to Incirlik, Turkey. From there the pilots, flying their F-16 “Falcon” fighters, flew numerous missions enforcing the northern ‘no fly zone.’ Though the VAANG had been mobilized for the Korean War and Berlin Crisis this marked the first time since it was organized in 1946 that the unit participated in a “real world” overseas mission for other than training. All members returned home safely.

In 1978 President Jimmy Carter got Israel and Egypt to agree to end their decade’s long war and sign the Camp David Peace accord. One of the provisions of this agreement is a permanent U.S. observer presence along their boundary line in the Sinai Peninsula. In 1995 the 29th Infantry Division became the first Guard divisional headquarters since the Korean War in 1952 to command soldiers overseas for other than training. It took a battalion-sized element, including 167 members of the VAARNG, on this important mission. All returned home safely in July 1995.

Also in 1995 President William Clinton got the warring factions of the former nation of Yugoslavia to sign the Dayton Peace Accords, finally ending nearly a decade of ethnic and civil war in the Balkans. Part of this agreement called for U.S. and NATO troops to act as “peacekeepers” patrolling the region and maintaining order. Several VAARNG units took part in this mission from 1996-2001. The one receiving the most attention was Leesburg’s Company C, 3rd Battalion 116th Infantry which deployed to Bosnia in 1997. It marked the first time since the Vietnam War in 1968 that a Guard infantry company had been sent to a (potential) combat zone. They spent most of their tour guarding the Sava River Bridge. They had no incidents and returned home without loss in May 1998.

By the mid 1990s, as part of the ‘peace dividend’, the Army began closing bases it no longer felt it needed to train a shrinking manpower pool. Fort Pickett in south central Virginia was one such base slated for closure. Opened as a large training center during World War II, it was again used as a training base during the Korean War. But after the Korean War it primarily became a smaller installation used mostly to train Guard and Army Reserve soldiers during their annual training. To keep its excellent ranges and facilities available, the Virginia National Guard, working through the National Guard Bureau in Washington, arranged to have the Army transfer the operation of the post to the VAARNG in 1997. At the same time the state headquarters operations of the Virginia National Guard relocated from Richmond to Pickett. Today the post is open year-round and offers training opportunities not only for the Guard and Reserve but all branches of the American military. Even foreign soldiers, such as Canadians, train on-site on an annual basis. Law enforcement officers, from FBI and ATF agents, to state and local police officers, also use its facilities.

The 21st Century began with tragedy for the Virginia National Guard.  On 3 March 2001, 18 airmen of the 203rd RED HORSE Flight, VAANG, perished along with three members of the Florida Army National Guard. The airmen were returning to their Virginia Beach home station from annual training in Florida when the Florida Army Guard aircraft they were in crashed in southern Georgia during a rain storm. This remains the largest single loss of members of the Virginia National Guard since the end of World War II.  

As the 21st Century opened the Guard began to receive more operational missions. The 29th Infantry Division received the tasking to lead NATO's Multi-National Division (North) in the enforcement of the Dayton Peace Accords. The division deployed as peacekeepers to Bosnia-Herzegovina in September 2001 and served there until April 2002.  This mission was noteworthy in that almost 2/3 of the soldiers serving were from the Guard or Reserve. The National Guard had clearly begun to take a greater role in this country's defense while continuing its traditional service to community and Commonwealth. Cold War missions and thinking were falling by the wayside as the National Guard saw increased involvement in peacekeeping and nation building.

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11 September 2001 Terrorist Attacks and the War on Radical Islam (2001-present)

 
Specialist Monica Beltran of the 1173rd Transportation Company, while serving in Iraq, became the first woman in the Virginia National Guard to be decorated with a Bronze Star Medal for Valor and to also receive a Purple Heart for a combat wound. Photo courtesy Sergeant Monica Beltran

On the morning of 11 September 2001, less than three weeks after soldiers of the 29th Division left Fort Belvoir for their mobilization station at Fort Dix, N.J., to prepare for their Bosnia mission, terrorists flew commercial airliners into the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., and a field in Pennsylvania. The nation changed immediately. Commercial air traffic was grounded across the country. Members of the Virginia National Guard were ordered to State Active Duty by Governor James Gilmore in anticipation of other terrorists attacks. Plans were put in place to guard commercial airports, critical infrastructure, government facilities and other potential targets.
 
Starting on 11 September, 192nd Fighter Wing of the VAANG came under the control of the North American Air Defense Command. Its mission was to fly combat air patrols over the eastern seaboard. This mission continued into the summer of 2002.

Soldiers of the VAARNG provided security to government installations and critical infrastructure and began training for an airport security mission which would allow the public to return to commercial air travel. By early October 2001 Army Guard soldiers were stationed in Virginia's nine commercial airports. Their presence provided a sense of security that encouraged the public to return to air travel. Their mission continued through the spring of the following year. The Virginia National Guard was fully engaged in this nation's homeland defense effort, designated as “Operation Noble Eagle.”
 
As the United States committed to eliminate the terrorist threat, it was evident that the Virginia National Guard would become involved in what was dubbed the “Global War on Terror.” The first theater of the conflict was Afghanistan, where the Al Qaida network was given sanctuary by the Taliban rulers of that country. In October 2001 the U.S., later supported by NATO, invaded Afghanistan in “Operation Enduring Freedom” (OEF) and quickly destroyed the Taliban’s authority over most of the country. But it failed to kill or capture the key leadership of Al Qaida.  In early 2002 approximately 70 soldiers of Virginia’s Company B, 3rd Battalion, 20th Special Forces Group were mobilized and deployed to Afghanistan. They captured several important enemy leaders and a large amount of arms and ammunition before all safely returned home in November 2002.  

As an effect of the war in Afghanistan a large number of enemy combatants were brought to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay (usually referred to as “Gitmo”), Cuba, for detention. Normally security on the base is handled by the U.S. Marine Corps but as the advance planning for the possible war with Iraq was taking shape much of their force was busy training for the invasion. To help guard the base the 2nd Battalion, 116th Infantry was mobilized on 2 November 2002. It was the first Virginia National Guard battalion to deploy overseas for other than training since World War II. After completing its post mobilization training it deployed to Gitmo where it provided perimeter security for the compound where the detainees are held. The Guard soldiers had no interaction with the prisoners themselves. The unit returned home in October 2003.

The war in Afghanistan continues to this day. Over the years since 2002 a number of Virginia Guard units, Army and Air, have served in country. Among them was the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry; which had two soldiers killed by a roadside bomb, the first Virginia Guard personnel to die in combat since World War II. And Sergeant Jason Llewellyn earned a Bronze Star Medal for Valor. Also serving was the Headquarters, 54th Field Artillery Brigade, whose soldiers assisted with the first Afghan presidential election in 2005. Several teams of trainers have deployed to assist in training the Afghan army and police forces. In 2010 the 529th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion deployed under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Michelle Rose, the first Virginia Guard female commander to ever take her unit to war. From the VAANG, elements of the 203rd RED HORSE Flight and 192nd Fighter Wing have served in-country.

As the war in Afghanistan continued, in 2003 the U.S. invaded Iraq, designated as “Operation Iraqi Freedom” (OIF), on 19 March 2003, to locate and destroy what was believed to be stockpiles of “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD-both chemical and biological). While the invasion quickly succeeded in toppling the government of Saddam Hussein, no WMD were located. The war plan had called for a quick strike to end Saddam’s rule and to set up an interim government with UN support and then for the American troops to withdraw. In fact on 1 May 2003, President George W. Bush proclaimed an end to “major combat” in Iraq. His statement proved very premature. Iraq fell into total chaos with sectarian violence and attacks against American personnel increasing at an alarming level. The Army had no plan for this and was completely unprepared to deal with it. The primary focus of America’s military operations for the next seven years would be in Iraq.

Three VAARNG units were in theater during the Iraq invasion, with two taking an active role in the initial attack and the third entering the country later in the year. The Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment, 1030th Engineer Battalion and the 1032nd Transportation Company both accompanied the invasion forces entering Iraq in March and April. The 229th Military Police Company was initially stationed in Kuwait but transferred to provide security for Abu Ghraib Prison in November 2003. Although numerous incidents of prisoner abuse at the prison were reported in the international media, no Virginia Guardsman was ever accused of such misconduct; in fact, three were named in the later investigation for doing the right thing in reporting witnessed abuse to higher authorities, who then took no action. All these units returned home with no losses though several soldiers had been wounded, none were serious.

The VAANG also played a small but important role in the invasion too. Five members of the 200th Weather Flight served in support of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. The Army has no weather forecasting capability for its helicopter units so it depends upon the USAF and ANG for these specialists to accompany them in combat. The five took part in the invasion of Iraq, with one member, Senior Master Sergeant Lori Flinn, receiving a Bronze Star Medal from Major General David Petraeus, commander of the 101st, for her weather forecasting skills. She is the first member of the VAANG (of either gender) to be awarded a combat decoration.

In September 2003, as the situation in Iraq rapidly deteriorated, about 300 VAANG personnel from the 192nd Fighter Wing, along with several of the unit’s F-16 fighters, deployed to Qatar from where the pilots flew combat cover missions over Iraq. All returned home safely.

Over the intervening years several VAANG units served in Iraq or were split between Iraq and Afghanistan. The 192nd Security Force Squadron (the military police element of the 192nd Fighter Wing) served in OIF in 2006. From late 2006 into early 2007 the 203rd RED HORSE flight served in OIF, with elements again also in OEF, all performing various construction missions.

As the war increased in scope more and more VAARNG units were mobilized and deployed to OIF; too many to completely discuss here. However, several units stand out for various reasons and can be highlighted.

The 276th Engineer Battalion deployed to Iraq in 2004. On 21 December two members of the battalion were among 25 Americans killed by a suicide bomber in their dining facility in Mosul. A reporter for the Richmond Times Dispatch was on the scene and filed graphic images of the aftermath of the dead which ran in newspapers and on TV networks across the country, bringing its story to a national audience. For its hard, often dangerous work in clearing roadside bombs and destroying enemy ammunition supplies the unit earned an Army Valorous Unit Award (VUA), the first time this decoration has been awarded to a Virginia Guard unit. The 276th earned a second VUA during its 2008-2009 tour of Afghanistan making it the most highly decorated battalion in the state force since World War II. And during the 276th’s OIF tour Specialist Jonathon Clifton earned a Bronze Star Medal w/V for Valor, the first Virginia Guardsman to receive this award since World War II.

The 1173rd Transportation Company served in OIF in 2004-2005. During its tour, which primarily consisted of providing armed truck escorts to civilian convoys over the hostile roads of Iraq, three members of the unit earned Bronze Star Medals for Valor (BSM w/V). One of these, Specialist Monica Beltran, is the first Virginia Guardswoman to earn a medal for valor in the state’s history, as well as being the first to receive a Purple Heart for being combat wounded. About a year after the unit returned home ABC News ran a story basically accusing a section of the unit of “abandoning” a convoy; allowing civilian drivers to be killed during an ambush. The Army’s investigation right after the attack proved the soldiers did exactly what they were trained to do. In fact, two of the BSM w/V’s were awarded for this action long before the story ever broke in the media.

The 2nd Battalion, 224th Aviation deployed to Iraq with its UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters in 2006-2007. It was assigned to work with the U.S. Marine Corps (a first for the Virginia Guard). It flew numerous combat missions inserting and extracting Marines and transporting prisoners in western Iraq. The unit returned home with no losses. For its support of the Marines the unit received a Navy Unit Commendation, a first for the Virginia Guard. It also was selected by the Army Aviation Association as the “Outstanding Guard Aviation Unit for 2006”; another first for the state. A total of 42 members of the unit were awarded the BSM for merit (not valor) during this tour, about 10 % of the battalion, by far the largest number of high personal awards made in any one unit since 9/11.

On 20 January 2007 a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter carrying a National Guard Bureau (NGB) fact-finding team was shot down in Iraq. Among those killed were two VAARNG members, each notable in their own way. Colonel Paul Kelly was an aviator, having spent much of his career in the 224th Aviation before being assigned to the Aviation Division at NGB. He is the highest ranking Guardsman nation-wide to be killed in action since September 11. Staff Sergeant Darryl Booker was a highly trained air traffic controller and also a former member of the 224th Aviation. With his death he became the first African American Virginia Guardsman who can be documented as being killed in combat. Both men are buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

In the last couple of years, as the conflict in Iraq has seen a reduction in violence and American forces have reduced their presence, fewer Virginia National Guard units and personnel have served in-country. In fact, the 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry which arrived in Iraq on 9 April 2010 for a one-year tour had its tour cut in half, with the unit scheduled to return home by the end of the summer instead of in 2011. Soon all of their accounts of service and their sacrifice will be found only in the history books along with the state soldiers who served in the Revolution or World War I or in any of the other past conflicts the Virginia Guard has been a participant.

And, as with earlier conflicts, there has been a price to pay in lives cut short in the defensive of freedom. To date, since 11 September 2001, 13 members (all men) of the Virginia Army Guard (no Air Guard) have died while serving on active duty. Ten of these have been killed as the result of combat operations, with three dying from non-combat causes.

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Transformation and Out of State Duty (2005-Present)

 

In 2007 the Virginia Air Guard’s 192nd Fighter Wing began flying the new F-22 “Raptor” fighters out of Langley Air Force Base, Hampton, VA. Virginia National Guard Historical Collection

As happened during World War II the Army decided it needed to change how its forces were structured and organized to better fight the elusive enemy it faced in Afghanistan and Iraq. Starting in 2005 the Virginia Army Guard began undergoing what was known as “Transformation”, the almost total reorganization of the state force. Among the most significant changes was the creation of the 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team from the former 1st Brigade (consisting primarily of the 116th Infantry with support units), 29th Infantry Division. The 29th still exists but it is now only a command and control organization with few units directly under its control in peacetime. Other major changes saw old units such the 3rd Battalion, 111th Air Defense Artillery being converted and retrained as the 2nd Squadron, 183rd Cavalry. With little need for heavy guns in fighting insurgents the 111th Field Artillery was reduced from two battalions to only a single, two-battery, battalion. Many other such changes occurred over the force, all of this happening while units were being mobilized, trained and deployed to war. It caused a massive amount of confusion but eventually the new system fell into place.

The VAANG was not immune to drastic changes in this period either. In 2007 the 192nd Fighter Wing was transferred from the only station it had ever known at Sandston (using Richmond International Airport runways) to its new location at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton. The reason for this move was the 192nd traded in its old F-16 “Falcon” fighters for the new F-22 “Raptor” aircraft, the latest in fighter design. The 192nd is co-assigned with the 1st Fighter Wing, Regular Air Force, and they share the F-22’s. This is the first time any Air National Guard fighter squadron has been partnered on a permanent basis with an Air Force unit in a non-combat setting.

While wars raged overseas events at home also kept the Virginia Guard busy. In August 2005 Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi causing more than 1,200 deaths and billions of dollars in property damage. Under an all-states agreement whenever a major disaster affects some state or region Guard resources from across the nation, ranging from personnel to supplies and equipment, are dispatched to aid in the recovery. In the wake of Katrina more the 500 Virginia Guard members, Army and Air, were placed on active duty and moved to the region to assist in the security for and clean up of the area.  

In 2006 President George W. Bush authorized the deployment along the Mexican border of 6,000 Guard personnel to assist the Border Patrol in controlling the flow of illegal immigrants across the border. Known as “Operation Jump Start” over the two-year period this program existed, approximately 700 Virginia Guard personnel served, mostly in Arizona.

From the more than 400 year-history of the Virginia National Guard there are thousands of stories of people and units serving in peace and war to protect our Commonwealth and nation. To find out more about the history of the Virginia National Guard or to contribute to our

Historical Collection please contact:
Virginia National Guard Historical Collection
c/o Virginia Army National Guard
Public Affairs ATTN: VAAG-PA (Historian)
BLDG 316, Fort Pickett
Blackstone, VA 23824

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