FORT HOOD, Texas –
The final group of Soldiers assigned to the Fort Belvoir-based 29th Infantry Division Headquarters returned to the United States March 24, 2022, and were greeted by senior leaders from the Virginia National Guard when their plane landed at Fort Hood, Texas. They completed a 9-month deployment to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility as the headquarters of Task Force Spartan, which exercises command and control of Operation Spartan Shield.
Maj. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, the Adjutant General of Virginia, Command Chief Master Sgt. James Profita, the VNG Senior Enlisted Leader, and Command Sgt. Maj. Ronald Smith, the Virginia Army National Guard State Command Sergeant Major, greeted Maj. Gen. John Rhodes and Command Sgt. Maj. Daryl Plude, the 29th ID command team, along with dozens of other returning Soldiers.
Task Force Spartan is a unique, multi-component, total Army organization, made up of active Army, National Guard, and Army Reserve support units and is led by a National Guard division headquarters on a rotational basis.
In its role as Task Force Spartan, the 29th ID commanded two brigades and four battalion-level task forces. Units supporting Operation Spartan Shield provide capabilities such as aviation, logistics, force protection and information management. They also facilitated theater security cooperation activities such as key leader engagements, joint exercises, conferences, symposia, and humanitarian assistance and disaster response planning.
Established in August 2016 with the first deployment of the 29th ID to Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, the purpose of Task Force Spartan is to establish a continuous U.S. military presence in southwest Asia that is built upon the execution of joint-interoperability exercises with partner nations from the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The USCENTCOM Area of Responsibility is among the most dynamic regions in the world. Networks such as Daesh, al-Qaeda, and affiliated groups continue to pose a threat to U.S. interests and partners. The volatile state of the region requires the U.S. to prepare the environment as much as possible to protect U.S. national interests and those of our partners.
“The staff of the 29th Infantry Division Headquarters spent over two years training for this mission and shortly after arriving in southwest Asia we added Operation Allies Refuge to our list of tasks,” said Maj. Gen. John Rhodes, Commanding General, 29th Infantry Division. “The Soldiers of Task Force Spartan quickly adjusted to evolving requirements and executed every mission like the true professional citizen-Soldiers they are.”
The 29th ID, as Task Force Spartan, worked to support and build upon the military capacity of regional partner nations through an on-going series of bilateral and multi-lateral military training exercises and engagements. During the division’s nine months in theater, it executed or participated in more than 15 exercises as well as numerous engagements with more than eight partner nations.
In September 2021, TF Spartan participated in Bright Star 21, a bi-annual, multi-lateral training exercise hosted by the Arab Republic of Egypt with support from USCENTCOM. The exercise consisted of multiple training events, including a command-post exercise, field training exercises, a maritime exercise and a senior leader seminar. Approximately 20 nations participated in Bright Star 21.
“Bright Star was an opportunity to enhance our relationships, train with multiple allies and partner nations in a joint environment and strengthen the military capacity and capability in the region,” said Rhodes. “The size and scope of the exercise, combined with the professionalism of our allies and partner nations led to a positive experience for all involved and demonstrated to other nations in the region that we stand together, ready to meet any challenge.”
“TF Spartan was the planning lead for the entire Land Forces component of Bright Star 21 and supported the largest and most strategic portions of Bright Star 21,” said Maj. Thomas Bortner, training and exercise officer-in-charge for Task Force Spartan.
An exercise of this size would, of itself, pose a considerable logistical and planning effort. However, this iteration of the exercise happened to coincide with the noncombatant evacuation operations out of Afghanistan as part of Operations Allies Refuge in which Task Force Spartan, and much of the U.S. military assets in the USCENTCOM AOR, played a significant role.
“The execution of Bright Star 21 was under the cloud of Operations Allies Refuge in Afghanistan,” said Bortner. “The fact that the U.S. was able to execute Bright Star 21 during one of the largest airlifts and civilian evacuations in U.S. history demonstrated how important our relationship is with Egypt.”
TF Spartan then planned and participated in Gulf Gunnery 21, a two-week trilateral gunnery exercise between the Royal Saudi Land Forces, Kuwaiti Land Force, and U.S. forces held at Udairi Range Complex, Kuwait in November 2021. The exercise was designed to strengthen the relationships and increase interoperability between the three military forces and marked the first time in more than 30 years that all three nations came together, having not done so since the 1991 Gulf War.
“The main objectives of Gulf Gunnery 2021 were to achieve interoperability between the three nations, conduct a trilateral gunnery exercise, strengthen military-to-military relationships and to promote the message to our adversaries that our regional partnership is strong,” said Maj. Matthew Wessler, TF Spartan’s Kuwait Partner Nation Team Deputy.
Soldiers from the 29th ID and TF Spartan then took part in Exercise Protection Shield III, a nine-day chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear survivability training exercise held between the U.S. and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. During the exercise, more than 400 participants from multiple organizations were synchronized to train in a real-world threat environment demonstrating their readiness to respond as a team to regional threats.
This biennial training event involved TF Spartan, U.S. Air Force Emergency Management, U.S. Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal, U.S. Air Force medical experts, Royal Saudi Land Forces, Royal Saudi Air Defense, the Royal Saudi Civil Defense Force, Red Crescent, Ministry of Health and other Kingdom of Saudi Arabia civilian organizations working side-by-side toward a common goal.
“Protection Shield III is a great opportunity for the U.S. military to come together with Saudi Arabia and represents a unique opportunity to both learn from and teach our training partners, honing our crisis response capabilities,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 John Hartley, the TF Spartan CBRN officer-in-charge.
TF Spartan also led and participated in numerous engagements with their regional partners, aimed at strengthening relationships and developing mutual cooperation.
In December 2021, TF Spartan Soldiers led female self-defense classes at the Kuwait Sports Club in downtown Kuwait City, as part of the “Every Soldier an Ambassador” program, which encourages interactions between deployed American Soldiers and Kuwaitis. The classes were held in support of the United Nations Secretary-General’s UNiTE by 2030 campaign to End Violence against Women.
The event consisted of 12 two-day long classes, as well as a specialty class for women with special needs. Each class began with an inspirational message from a local female leader and consisted of learning and practicing basic self-defense techniques.
Ambassador Alina Romanowski, U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait, even dropped by for a special session for her and her staff.
“We are so pleased with the collaboration between Kuwait Sports Club, Task Force Spartan, and the U.S. Embassy,” said Katie Garry, Cultural Attaché for the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait. “The workshop was one of the largest collaborations in recent memory between the U.S. military, the U.S. Embassy, and a Kuwait sports institution. We are grateful to have been a partner in this collaboration.”
Also in December 2021, Soldiers and leaders from TF Spartan’s Office of the Staff Judge Advocate participated in a multi-day legal symposium held at the Kuwait Air Force Command. The event was co-planned by TF Spartan and the Kuwait Ministry of Defense Legal Affairs Directorate of Military Judicial Authority.
To assist in the planning and execution of these and numerous other exercises and engagements, TF Spartan developed Partner Nation Teams to directly work in collaboration with its various partner nations across the region. These small teams of highly trained officers and noncommissioned officers worked side-by-side with their counterparts from each host-nation’s military.
“Establishing the Partner Nation Teams allowed our small teams to focus solely on building relationships and planning engagements and exercises with one country’s military services,” said Maj. Chris Wille, Task Force Spartan’s Liaison Officer to the United Arab Emirates Land Forces and Deputy Chief of the UAE Partner Nation Team.
By working alongside their partners, these teams were able to develop the relationships and trust necessary to plan and execute major bilateral and multi-lateral training exercises.
“Being on the ground with our partners enabled us to build relationships, improve interoperability between our militaries, and better understand their training and capabilities. This is hard to accomplish if you’re not on the ground with them every day,” added Wille.
In addition to its primary mission of building partnerships and promoting stability across the region, TF Spartan played a vital role in the effort to evacuate at-risk Afghans from Afghanistan, as part of Operation Allies Refuge, following the Taliban take-over of the country in 2021.
In July 2021, TF Spartan was tasked with the creation of facilities at Camp Buehring, Kuwait, to house and care for up to 5,000 Afghan evacuees. In less than 60 days, the 29th ID, working with the West Virginia National Guard’s 111th Theater Engineer Brigade, constructed “Freedom Village,” a sprawling compound designed and built from the ground up as a short-term safe haven to welcome and house evacuees as they awaited processing and onward movement.
“We hit the ground within 24 hours of getting the warning order,” said Sgt. 1st Class Gavin McClung, Task Force Spartan Protection Cell noncommissioned officer. “From that time on, we sprinted.”
With time running against them, the Soldiers worked furiously to ensure Freedom Village was fully operational before the first evacuees arrived.
“We had operated under a particular course of action for about 10 days, and in 24 hours, we shifted course again because we were told the Kuwaiti government had agreed to help us – that this was a humanitarian mission,” McClung said.
With concrete numbers to work from, the team – now officially known as Task Force Freedom – worked with subunits under TF Spartan to anticipate every logistical need in the movement of almost 5,000 people, more than half of whom were children.
“It took a lot of planning, because displaced civilians have different access and needs than Department of Defense personnel,” McClung said. “They couldn’t go everywhere on base, so there were logistics of transportation and meal services to consider.”
“Even though we were adjusting as the situation changed, we knew it was going to work because we started with a solid plan,” said 1st Lt. John Rivera, Task Force Freedom tactical operations center officer-in-charge.
By the end of August 2021, the last of the evacuees boarded flights headed for the United States. In all, Task Force Freedom was responsible for more than 800 service members from 13 units, made up of active duty, National Guard and Reserve. They worked with multiple federal agencies, including the Department of State, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, as well as multiple non-governmental agencies to screen, process, and care for almost 5,000 evacuees, while providing more than 132,000 meals, 5,500 medical screenings, and the delivery of two babies.
Shortly after completing its work at Camp Buehring, Task Force Freedom was then tasked with assuming responsibility for the Afghan Evacuation Mission Support Element at Camp As Sayliyah, Qatar.
Many of the same 29th ID and TF Spartan Soldiers that had served as Task Force Freedom in Kuwait relocated to Qatar to continue their mission of aiding at-risk Afghans.
Renamed Task Force Liberty, they became U.S. Army Central’s lead agency for Operation Allies Welcome, the multi-agency federal effort, led by the Department of Homeland Security, to support long-term safe haven operations and the safe resettlement of vulnerable Afghans following the Afghanistan evacuation efforts of Operations Allies Refuge.
Task Force Freedom’s mission was to liaise, coordinate, integrate, and operate with joint interagency, intergovernmental, international, and non-governmental agencies and organizations to receive, house and screen Afghan evacuees for onward movement.
“Coming off a historic mission in Kuwait, Task Force Liberty Soldiers turned around and took over the evacuation mission in Qatar in a matter of weeks,” said Col. Tim Culver, who served as chief-of-staff for the evacuation missions in both Kuwait and Qatar. “We were able to seamlessly shift from crisis operations at Buehring to steady-state operations at CAS, with little or no previous humanitarian support experience, which speaks volumes of the can-do mentality deeply ingrained in so many 29th ID Soldiers. Much like the 29th ID Soldiers before them, these Soldiers will be remembered in history books years from now. The relationships they fostered and lives they changed will last for generations in ways that they may not even realize yet."
Over the course of their nine-month deployment, the Soldiers of the 29th ID remained resilient, flexible, and focused on completing their mission, even in the face of challenges and ever-changing circumstances.
“We have made tremendous sacrifices in providing aid and comfort to Afghan evacuees, maintaining regional security, and developing enduring relationships with our partner nations,” said Rhodes. “We take great pride in being a part of this historic deployment. The 29th has proudly represented our nation, our home states, and our local communities.”