May 26, 2005
By Jeff Lester
MOUNTAIN EMPIRE COMMUNITY COLLEGE — The Virginia National Guard has been pushed to, and beyond, its limits since Sept. 11, 2001.
But Maj. Gen. Claude Williams believes the soldiers and airmen of the National Guard have proven to be as good or better than the active-duty troops they have served alongside in America's first wars of the 21st century.
Williams, Virginia's adjutant general since 1998, leads the roughly 8,000-strong Virginia Army National Guard and the roughly 1,200 members of the state's Air National Guard.
He discussed the Guard's growing role in national defense, and the crucial support offered by family members and employers back home, during a May 13 visit to MECC, where he served as the 2005 graduation ceremony's featured speaker.
The Virginia Guard is about to deploy for combat duty a helicopter battalion and an artillery unit converted to military police, Williams said during an interview before the ceremony. When that's done, virtually all units of the Virginia Guard will have served in Afghanistan, Iraq or both, he said — some of them twice.
Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the National Guard and Reserve have taken on their biggest role in national defense since World War II, Williams noted. "Part time" citizen soldiers have provided as much as 40 percent of the fighting force in Iraq.
Local Guard units that have fought in Iraq include Bravo Company of the 276th Engineer Battalion, which included several members of the Big Stone Gap-based 189th Engineer Co., along with the Gate City-based 1032nd Transportation Co. and 1030th Engineer Battalion. Also, the Pennington Gap-based 1031st Engineer Co. spent months on duty at Ft. Lee, Va.
Active-duty soldiers at the Army bases where Guard troops prepare for overseas duty have offered special praise for the Virginia Guard units that passed through their doors, Williams said. In fact, he added, they've called the Gate City units among the best they've seen from any branch of service, period.
Virginia Guard infantry units have gone into battle with regular troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Engineer units have done everything from constructing roads and buildings to finding and destroying improvised explosive devices. Fighter plane squadrons and helicopter units have carried much of the load in dominating the skies over Iraq. And the 1032nd Transportation Co. earned the distinction of logging more than 1 million miles as it hauled supplies all over Iraq from the weeks following the March 2003 invasion through the first days of 2004.
The Guard has lost two soldiers in Afghanistan, and two more were killed in the December 2004 suicide attack on the mess tent of a base that housed the 276th in northern Iraq, Williams noted.
Williams is moved by the courage and perseverance he has seen in Guard soldiers recovering from terrible wounds at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he said. They included Dean Schwartz, a member of the Big Stone Gap unit who lost part of a leg in a rocket-propelled grenade attack. Despite the trauma of his wound and corrective surgery, Schwartz was and remains unfailingly optimistic, Williams said.
Most troops who have returned home are adjusting well to the transition from intense combat to civilian life, the general said. The active duty military and the Guard have come a long way with training on how to help returning troops decompress, he noted.
"We train them to do very mean things. Then we must turn that off," Williams said.
The Gate City native knows from experience what that means. After graduating from Virginia Tech's officer training program, Williams served with a transportation unit in Vietnam during 1970-71, supplying the 101st Airborne Division as it fought North Vietnamese troops along the border with South Vietnam.
Two decades later, Williams commanded the 1030th Engineer Battalion during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The Guard and the active-duty military have learned a lot since Vietnam about helping combat veterans get their lives back. That includes extensive counseling sessions and marriage enrichment seminars, Williams explained.
The spouses and friends who have organized community support for deployed troops also play a vital role in helping them return to the civilian world, he said.
Guard troops have enjoyed tremendous support from other Virginia citizens, according to Williams. He's seen local tradespeople and businesses all over the state work for free to help spouses fix broken plumbing or do other household repairs. Others have raised funds to help supply deployed troops and support their families when needed, he said.
Most employers have bent over backward to support workers on active duty and their families, Williams said. Some have even paid deployed employees' salaries while they were gone.
The state legislature has responded as well.
Last year, the Guard saw its greatest success yet in the General Assembly, Williams noted. Lawmakers who had never seen Guard troops go into combat before now contacted him, asking how they could help.
The results included a $650,000 yearly increase in tuition assistance for Guard members, giving them $2.25 million annually. Also, the state now pays group life insurance premiums for deployed troops, and increased funds for recruiting and armory maintenance, he explained.
Lester is a senior writer for The Post in Big Stone Gap, Virginia.