SANDSTON, Va. –
Approximately 110 Soldiers from the Virginia National Guard’s Staunton-based 116th Brigade Combat Team Headquarters returned to Virginia Jan. 7 after serving on federal active duty in Afghanistan since early August 2011. The unit served as headquarters for Combined Team Zabul where it conducted full-spectrum counterinsurgency operations in Zabul Province in southeast Afghanistan, a region nearly the size of the State of New Jersey. They officially began federal active duty May 15, 2011 and mobilized with just 60 days notice.
Also returning are approximately 20 Soldiers from the Bowling Green-based Detachment 1, Company B, 116th Brigade Special Troops Battalion.
No formal welcome home ceremony was planned for the return. Instead, Soldiers flew back to the airport closest to their home of record throughout the day on Saturday where they reunited with family and friends.
About 50 Soldiers have taken advantage of an opportunity to take part in military schooling opportunities and won't be immediately returning home. A small number of Soldiers are staying at Camp Shelby, Miss., for additional medical evaluation.
The main body of Soldiers arrived Jan. 3 at their demobilization station of Camp Shelby, Miss., where they conducted medical evaluations and administrative tasks to transition from federal active duty to traditional National Guard status.
The 116th BCT Headquarters was the first National Guard brigade combat team headquarters to command United States Army active duty forces, NATO forces and National Guard forces in Afghanistan. They commanded two Romanian battalions, an active duty Army Stryker battalion, a Provincial Reconstruction Team, a National Guard Agribusiness Development Team and other enabler units.
The 116th BCT Headquarters planned and executed more than 150 lethal and non-lethal missions to include 11 air assault missions, and units serving under the 116th found 50 enemy supply and ordnance caches, detained more than 150 insurgents and found 350 IEDs.
The Soldiers from the Detachment 1, Company B, 116th Brigade Special Troops Battalion also deployed with the headquarters to provide aerial reconnaissance support with the Shadow Unmanned Aerial System. The Soldiers flew more than 300 missions to provide more than 1,200 hours in support of CTZ operations resulting in the detention of 20 insurgents and locating six IED implacers.
“We have been incredibly successful from the date of our notification to mobilize right up until today,” said Col. Blake Ortner, commander of the 116th. “The BCT has brought freedom and peace to a nation that has suffered for 40 years, and our Soldiers have made Afghanistan a better place. We had a short notice mobilization, took over this mission and succeeded tremendously. We have done what few units are able to do, and we have done it exceedingly well.”
Leadership worked with government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan leadership, Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police, Afghan Border Police and Afghan Local Police to increase security and stability in Zabul province. The 116th Headquarters opened a route to Mizan district that had been closed for an extended time, bringing added security to the district and expanding the security bubble around the Provincial capital of Qalat.
“It is incredible how much we have done, not least of which was the close cooperation with our ANA and ANP partners that resulted in the transfer of five checkpoints from ANA to ANP, something Regional Command-South has been trying to accomplish for 10 months,” Ortner said. “We also opened the route to Mizan District, and this will allow the farmers of Mizan to get their crops to market without the Taliban tolls and bribes that they have had to pay."
Soldiers in the unit earned 42 Bronze Star Medals and four Combat Action Badges.
The unit had no Soldiers killed or wounded in action during deployment.
Ortner gave a special thanks to the families. “Our families endure an often more difficult road than we do,” he said. “The fear of the unknown, the fear of what may happen can be debilitating, and they have my deepest gratitude for their sacrifice as well during our deployment.”
The Soldiers of the 116th BCT Headquarters mobilized with just 60 days notice to fill a gap created by the departure of a coalition force headquarters and the scheduled rotation of a U.S. headquarters organization. Originally scheduled for a yearlong mobilization, they are returning early due to 2014 force realignment and reorganization.
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 Virginia National Guard now has about 75 Soldiers and Airmen serving on federal active duty in Afghanistan and other locations across the world. Since September 11, 2001, more than 14,000 Virginia Guard Soldiers and Airmen have served on federal active duty in support of Operation Noble Eagle, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn, helping to maintain security in the United States and further the cause of freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as serving in the NATO peacekeeping mission in Bosnia and Kosovo.
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.