By Staff Sgt. A.J. Coyne
FORT PICKETT, Va. - After more than two months on the Arizona border with Mexico, where they turned away more than 400 undocumented aliens and helped seize more than 900 lbs. of marijuana, the Soldiers and Airmen of the Virginia National Guard’s Joint Task Force Stonewall were welcomed home with a ceremony at the Fort Pickett theater on Sept. 22.
“I can’t tell you how proud you’ve made all of us,” Secretary of Public Safety John Marshall told the more than 400 members of the task force. “I want to say thanks to all of you for your service. In particular, thank you for stepping up to the plate and serving your nation in Operation Jump Start.”
“You represent the very best of Virginia and you represent the very best of what it is to be a citizen,” Marshall added. “We are so very fortunate to have the service of all of you. Thank you for what you do.”
“First I want to commend each of you for volunteering for this important mission,” said Maj. Gen. Robert B. Newman, Jr., The Adjutant General of Virginia. “This deployment has made Virginia and the United States a safer place and I’m very pleased to welcome you home.”
Their mission began over the summer, when word went out looking for volunteers to support “Operation Jump Start,” the National Guard mission supporting the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. Within two days, more than 400 members of the Virginia Guard had volunteered for the assignment. In July, after several days of training at Fort Pickett, the Soldiers and Airmen arrived in Arizona, where they were based in the communities of Tucson, Ajo, Sasabe and Nogales.
JTF Stonewall’s mission was to man 32 Entry Identification Team (EIT) sites along 163 miles of the U.S. / Mexico border. From these EIT sites, Soldiers and Airmen watched the border for any suspicious activity.
“We reported any activity we saw to the border patrol,” explained Staff Sgt. Scott Mayhew, a Soldier with 1st Battalion, 111th Field Artillery. “Hopefully they’d then be able to pick the people up somewhere along the road.”
In addition to turning away more than 400 undocumented aliens and helping seize more than 900 lbs. of marijuana, JTF Stonewall reported over 1,800 undocumented alien entries which resulted in more than 500 detentions by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials.
The Soldiers and Airmen who took part in the mission found that it provided them with a great opportunity to work together.
“I think the Army and Air Guard learned from each other,” Senior Airman Rall Elder said. “We learned Army methods, they learned Air Force methods and then we put them all together to make it work.”
Overall, each of the returning Guard members felt that the mission was important and worthwhile.
“It was a great chance to protect our country,” said Spc. Jessie Blanding of the 2nd Squadron, 183rd Cavalry Regiment. “We stopped drug runners, illegal immigrants and things like that.”
In fact, Blanding felt so strongly about the mission that he has volunteered to go back to the border to continue the mission.
Elder volunteered for Operation Jump Start simply because he felt it was part of his duty as a member of the National Guard.
“Anytime you’re called up by your country, it’s a worthy mission,” Elder said. “We got a chance to stop illegal immigrants and drugs from coming into this country.”
Elder also said he thought the mission and the Guardsmen’s eagerness to take part sent an important message to the rest of the state.
“It really lets Virginians know we’ll do whatever it takes to defend our country and our commonwealth,” he said.