May 17, 2011

Staunton-based 116th Brigade Combat Team Headquarters departs for federal active duty

By Cotton Puryear
Virginia Department of Military Affairs

STAUNTON, Va. — Family, friends and members of the Staunton community gathered May 15 for a farewell ceremony for the Virginia National Guard’s Staunton-based 116th Brigade Combat Team Headquarters at the Shelburne Middle School gymnasium to officially mark the start of federal active duty for approximately 175 Soldiers. The unit will serve as a command and control headquarters for counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan. Before deploying to Afghanistan, the unit will report to Camp Shelby, Miss., to conduct training for approximately 45 to 60 days.


A group of friends and family gather around a departing Soldier in a prayer circle following the farewell ceremony for the Staunton-based 116th Brigade Combat Team Headquarters held May 15 at the Shelbourne Middle School. (Photo by Cotton Puryear, Virginia Department of Military Affairs)

Click HERE to view more photos on the Virginia Guard Flickr site.

“This unit was asked specifically to go on this mission,” said Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Long, Jr., the Adjutant General of Virginia. “There was no luck of the draw. The FORSCOM commander, a four star general, called me and said we need these people to go if they can go. It is an honor for me to say how proud I am of you and what you are about to do.”

The Soldiers of the 116th BCT Headquarters prepared for the mobilization with little more than 60 days of advance notice.

“My wife Mary Ellen and I are honored to be here with each and every one of you to wish you well on the task you are going to undertake, and that is not just the men and women of the 116th, but all the family members all around you,” said Sixth District Rep. Bob Goodlatte. “You know how much they love you and how much they support what you are doing. You also know the sacrifice they join you in making.

“Each and every one of you are the best trained, the best prepared and the best ready to undertake this of any of your predecessors in history,” he said. “You are carrying on a noble tradition, but you are yourselves part of that tradition, moving forward and protecting the people of this country, protecting the freedoms that we enjoy here, and I very greatly thank you."


Family members wave goodby to a busload of Solders from the Virginia National Guard’s Staunton-based 116th Brigade Combat Team Headquarters as they depart the Thomas D. Howie Armory in Staunton May 16, 2011. (Photo by Cotton Puryear, Virginia Department of Military Affairs)

Click HERE to view more photos on the Virginia Guard Flickr site.

The Headquarters will not mobilize with its normally assigned subordinate battalions from Virginia, but will instead provide command and control for active Army and coalition units upon its arrival in Afghanistan. With the U. S. Army’s system of modular unit organization, a brigade combat team headquarters can be mobilized on its own and be assigned three to five subordinate combat arms battalions as well as artillery and support battalions in order to conduct operations.

“This is a sad day,” said Col. Blake Ortner, commander of the 116th BCT. “But I also think this is a day for pride: pride in our unit and pride in ourselves. Less than one percent of this nation wears the uniform of the military. The few are protecting the many, and you are part of that small, elite group, and your family and friends can take pride in that as you can. We will do ourselves, the National Guard and Virginia proud.

“As Congressman Goodlatte mentioned, we do not serve alone,” he said. “Our service is the simple part. It is our friends and family that face a more difficult time. I can barely describe the pride I feel for our families who are some of the most caring and dedicated individuals I have ever met. They did not sign up for this as we did, but they stay by our sides, serving us as we serve this nation.”


Soldiers from the fires section practice battle drills on the Command Post of the Future at the Staunton armory. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Rebecca Petrie, 116th Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs)

While headquartered in Staunton, the 116th BCT Headquarters is made up of Soldiers from all over the state. Approximately 35 Soldiers are from the northern Virginia area, about 25 are from the Hampton Roads area, approximately 20 are from the Richmond and Petersburg area, about 20 are from the Staunton and Harrisonburg area, approximately 15 are from the Roanoke area, about 10 are from the Lynchburg area, approximately 10 are from the Charlottesville and central Virginia area and the other Soldiers are from various locations across Virginia as well as West Virginia, South Carolina and North Carolina.

The 116th Brigade Combat Team Headquarters last mobilized for active federal duty in Iraq from June 2007 to February 2008 where it served as the Joint Area Support Group in downtown Baghdad. The Joint Area Support Group controlled and coordinated all security and infrastructure for the U.S. Embassy Zone in Baghdad. The headquarters also tracked operations for two subordinate battalions and two separate companies assigned to the 116th operating elsewhere in Iraq and Kuwait.

Soldiers from the unit completed a week and a half of annual training at Fort Pickett and Staunton May 14 for the deployment.  The roughly 200 Soldiers from across the commonwealth met collectively for the first time at annual training and are now focused on training for the mission ahead.


Soldiers calculate adjustments for their M4 rifle at the zero range at Fort Pickett. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Rebecca Petrie, 116th Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs)

“These past few days were instrumental in starting to develop teamwork and unit cohesion for the deployment,” said Maj. Lesley Kipling of Springfield who serves as the brigade communications officer.

“This time together gave our section time to gel and prepare for the mission we are going to do in Afghanistan,” said Sgt. Deon Matthews, a communications sergeant from Vinton.

Matthews, who previously deployed with the Marines, is going on his first deployment with the Virginia Army National Guard and he is confident that the unit will perform well.

The Soldiers are scheduled to report to Camp Shelby, Miss., to conduct pre-deployment training for approximately two months before deploying overseas.  The BCT is also going to Fort Polk, La., to validate the staff and the command operations center.

“I enjoyed being able to build some camaraderie with the Soldiers I will be working with this next year,” Staff Sgt. Christina Gedney of Woodbridge who serves as the brigade Judge Advocate non-commissioned officer in charge.

During the annual training the Soldiers qualified on their weapons, completed required pre mobilization briefings and completed load out of their personal and section equipment.  The staff completed training on the Command Post of the Future in addition to the other tasks.

Additional reporting by Maj. Nevin Blankenship, 116th Brigade Combat Team Public Affairs

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