February 19, 2004

54th Field Artillery set to deploy

Virginia Beach National Guard unit is scheduled to leave at the end of the month to support OEF

By Devon Hubbard Sorlie
Soundings Staff

Richard Spence isn’t ordering his cap and gown anytime soon for his college graduation. The 23-year-old senior at Virginia State University in Petersburg won’t be joining his classmates for his anticipated December 2004 matriculation.

Instead, Spence will be getting another type of education, one not taught at universities and colleges. As a specialist with Virginia Beach’s 54th Field Artillery Brigade of the Virginia National Guard, Spence will be deployed at the end of February to provide support to troops in Operation Enduring Freedom.

Ironically, Spence joined the National Guard to earn money for college and “frankly, I wanted a break from school,” he admitted.

He’s going to get that break — one that may stretch from 18 to 24 months.

“I knew this was a possibility,” the sociology major said.

He’s has been in the Guard four years. His older brother is a sergeant in the same unit. Spence is prepared for his deployment. He’s been retraining on his weapon, although his skills as a shooter were already honed.

Until he leaves, though, he is spending plenty of time with his family and girlfriend, who is pretty “wrecked” about the deployment orders.

“We’ll have e-mail and ways to talk on the phone to keep in touch,” he said.

He joins 24 other soldiers for this deployment. Their mission is to provide command, control and supervision for up to six field artillery battalions. Those chosen to deploy are operations, logistics and intelligence specialists.

“I believe the Guard will blend in well with the troops we are relieving,” Spence said. “The training has really been quality to prepare us for everything. The Department of the Army is really pushing the lessons noted, lessons learned from what they already have experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

It’s been 63 years since the last time the 54th Field Artillery Brigade was last ordered to active federal service. In February 1941, the brigade became part of the 29th Infantry Division. It was reorganized and re-designated as the 29th Division Artillery a year later. That division landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, to provide field artillery support for the 116th Infantry Regiment.

During the Normandy Campaign, the brigade supported the 29th Infantry Division throughout the rest of its service during World War II.

The Virginia National Guard has done its fair share in providing soldiers and airmen into service since the terrorist acts of 9/11.

There are approximately 7,500 members of the Virginia National Guard, and an additional 1,200 in the Virginia Air National Guard. Since Sept. 11, 2001, 3,360 soldiers and 1,085 airmen have been used for either homeland security or deployed overseas.

The Guard supplied 1,535 troops and 275 airmen for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Another 390 soldiers and 370 airmen have been activated in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Right now one of the largest rotations of forces since World War II is going on as more than 123,000 troops in the Persian Gulf region will be replaced with approximately 110,000 personnel: 80,000 soldiers, 25,000 Marines, and 5,000 Air Force and Navy personnel serving as ground force support.

Sgt. 1st Class Ken LaMon, 37, also joined the Guard to earn money for education. He finished his degree in applied sciences at Southside Virginia Community College.

“Morale is extremely high within the unit,” he said. “We have been working on common task training to ensure the soldiers stay sharp. These are things they should know as a soldier, like how to probe for mines and fire control.”

Pfc. Mike Keller will spend the last few days before his deployment trying to get all of his loose ends tied up and, most importantly, getting his 2003 taxes finished.

Just 20 years old, Keller graduated Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach in 2001. He joined the National Guard and has been attending classes at Tidewater Community College while holding down a job.

Keller considered active duty before joining the Guard, so he is taking the deployment to Iraq in stride.

“Hey, someone has to do it,” he said. Keller leaves behind his parents in Virginia Beach.

“They’re OK with it,” he said. “My father was in the Navy.”

Spc. Eric Hopkins, 26, is eager to do his turn in the war against terrorism. His wife, an urologist in the Navy, already did her time overseas on USS Roosevelt right after 9/11.

Hopkins, a former Marine who specialized in artillery, joined the unit immediately after leaving active service. He’s been with the unit four years.

“Training has been good here to prepare us for coming into a combat zone, especially the sniper training, which is what we already knew with artillery in the Marines,” he said.

Right now, he’s working on how to be mentally prepared for the deployment.

“Just being away from here, and over there takes mental toughness,” Hopkins said.

Another student at TCC, Hopkins’ scheduled December graduation with a degree in architecture graphics will be put on hold until his return.

Sgt. Maj. Cliff White has no problem getting his employer to accept the possibility of his departure for the next 18-to-24 months. He is employed by the Virginia Department of Military Affairs.

What has been trickier, however, is his status as an elected officer in Cumberland County. He was elected to the Board of Supervisors on in November 2003.

“Within a week, I found out I was facing at least a year’s deployment,” White said. “So now either I have to resign or get a leave of absence.”

With a leave of absence, he would leave a five-member board with the probability of becoming stalemated with 2-2 ties and no provision for tiebreakers.

White has been busy trying to get the situation rectified, if not for him, but for others in years to come. He’s been working with a senator to get the state code amended that would address the situation. With e-mail and the Internet, White believes elected officials called to duty could still keep up on the issues and vote electronically.

“I wonder how many other soldiers on reserve are discouraged from wanting to run for office,” White said. “There can be no interim appointment.”

With his three-year term just beginning, White is reluctant to give up the position, yet he also is conflicted about leaving his second district without representation.

Only 25 of the 109-member unit is deploying.

“Most everybody wants to go,” White said. “I would hate to see my unit go on a real mission and have me sitting back from here and watching.”

He leaves behind two sons, ages 15 and 6, and a 13-year-old daughter.

“Hopefully, with Web cameras, we’ll be able to keep in touch,” White said.

Coming from such a remote area, White is confident the people of Cumberland County will watch out for his family. His wife isn’t thrilled about the deployment, but she supports his desire to go.

“She told me she understood how important this was for me and that we’ll get through this,” White explained.

While the location of where the unit will be going hasn’t been formally announced, there is a possibility they will be providing support at NATO headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan with other members of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Sgt. Linda Lucas, 48, is the lone female traveling with the 54th Field Artillery on this call-up. She joined the National Guard 15 years ago and now works as a military technician.

Lucas isn’t about to let a little thing like deployment stop her from working on her degree in interior design.

“I’m going to take my laptop and continue to work on my degree online,” she said. “At least that’s the plan for now.”
It’s a goal she’s had since joining the Guard in order to continue her education.

She’s spending as much time as she can with her loved ones before she deploys. Lucas will leave behind her husband, two daughters, sons-in-law, four grandchildren and six step-grandchildren. She’s not worried about being deployed in a combat zone.

“When it’s my time to check out, it’s my time, whether it is in the Persian Gulf or at home,” she said.

Still, she’s making sure her life insurance policy is up to date.

“They don’t want me to go, but they understand I am a soldier, and I must fulfill my duty to my country,” she explained. “This is not a game or a drill. This is for real. This is what I have been training for the past 15 years.”

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