December 2, 2008

Richmond-based 276th Engineer Battalion mobilizes for Afghanistan

By Sgt. Andrew H. Owen
Virginia Guard Public Affairs

Lauren Martinez embraces her fiancee' Pfc. Kris Fugate before he departs to Camp Shelby Miss. Fugate is a Soldier in the Headquarters Support Company of the Richmond-based 276th Engineer Battalion. (Photo by Sgt. Andrew H. Owen, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

RICHMOND, Va. — Hundreds of people braved the cold November rain to visit the Landmark Theater Sunday to see their loved ones of the Virginia National Guard one more time before the Soldiers headed off to their mobilization training in preparation for their upcoming overseas deployment.

Family and friends packed the theater to say farewell to the Richmond-based 276th Engineer Battalion Nov. 30 prior to their departure to Camp Shelby, Miss., where the roughly 200 Soldiers will finish up their training before deploying to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

The battalion, which is comprised of two companies, the headquarters Support Company and Forward Support Company, has been conducting pre-mobilization training for the past several months at Fort Pickett, Va. During the training at Fort Pickett the Soldiers focused on weapons firing, medical tasks, communication skills and driver training. The training they received will allow unit members to focus on their collective mission of improvised explosive device defeat and route clearance while during their time at Camp Shelby.

Spc. Daniel Jones of Norfolk pauses for a moment of silence with friends and family after the departure ceremony for the 276th Engineer Battalion Sunday at the Landmark Theater in Richmond. (Photo by Sgt. Andrew H. Owen, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

“We spent about 90 days down at Fort Pickett trying to hone our skills,” said Lt. Col James Zollar, battalion commander. “I would like to let every family member know that you are preparing to deploy a professional, respectful, and vigilant Soldier.

“They’ve honed their skills and they’re ready. They’ve improved their abilities to shoot, their ability to move across the battlefield, and to communicate across the battlefield. They can take care of themselves and they can take care of business.”

The Soldiers will spend several months away from their families while they provide coalition support to the people of Afghanistan. The Adjutant General of Virginia, Maj. Gen. Robert B. Newman, Jr. promised, “Your leadership is well-trained, and they will train you well at Shelby to do the mission overseas. We will do all we can to protect and defend your families back here at home, and we will do all we can to support you in your mission overseas.”

The primary mission of the unit is projected to be providing command and control for one active Army combat engineer company based out of Germany and three National Guard combat engineer companies from Michigan, California, and Wisconsin that will be providing route clearance and IED defeat to coalition forces in Afghanistan.

“I assure you that while difficult and challenging, the mission you are going to be a part of in Afghanistan is a critically important one and the Afghan people appreciate it,” said Virginia Governor Tim Kaine.

Of the roughly 200 Soldiers deploying with the unit, three of them have a special, unbreakable bond. They are family.  Sgt. 1st Class Felton J. Screen, Staff Sgt. Randy L. Screen, and their sister 1st Lt. Demetra J. Screen are all deploying together with the 276th Engineers.

The Screens are deploying with almost 30 years experience between them, and both Felton and Randy have been deployed in the past. Although this is Demetra’s first combat deployment, she feels at ease knowing that she will have her brothers there to for support.

Staff Sgt. Randy L. Screen, Jr. (left) and his brother Sgt. 1st Class Felton J. Screen (right) embrace their father Randy L. Screen, Sr. at the Landmark Theater in Richmond. The brothers Screen are deploying to Afghanistan early next year alongside their sister, 1st Lt. Demetra Screen. (Photo by Sgt. Andrew H. Owen, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

Felton, the senior personnel sergeant for the battalion, served with the battalion in Iraq from October 2004 until March 2004 and understands the job carries a lot of responsibility, but said, “Knowing the family is here, that’s very comforting. When there is some rough times I have two counselors on my left and my right I can go to.”

When Randy was looking for a deployment to volunteer for and discovered he could deploy with his siblings it was not a tough decision. He said he could have gone with the embedded training team, but would much rather deploy with his family.

As the executive officer for the FSC, Demetra, who left Friday for Camp Shelby as part of the advance party to prepare for the unit’s arrival, was a little nervous about her first deployment but said, “ I ‘m kind of excited now that I have my family going with me.”

While the Screens will find themselves separated from most of their family, they will have a unique opportunity to have their siblings close while doing an important service to the people of Afghanistan. For most Soldiers it will be months before they see their families again, the Screens will hopefully not go more than few days at a time.

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