FORT PICKETT, Va. — Brig. Gen. Blake C. Ortner took command of the Virginia National Guard’s Fort Belvoir-based 29th Infantry Division from Maj. Gen. Charles W. Whittington Jr., during a change of command ceremony July 24, 2015, at Fort Pickett, Va. Lt. Gen. Michael S. Tucker, commander of First Army, presided over the exchange of organizational colors.
Ortner was previously the deputy commander of the 29th.
“I am sincerely honored to be here with you today to take on this distinguished honor as your commander,” Ortner said.
Ortner thanked Maj. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, the Adjutant General of Virginia, and Maj. Gen. Linda L. Singh, the Adjutant General of Maryland, for choosing him to command the 29th ID.
“I understand the significance and challenges of this position and I’m humbled that you’ve expressed the confidence in offering me this challenge,” he said.
Ortner also thanked his wife Kristen and his two children for their support throughout his military career. In addition he expressed his appreciation and gratitude for the families of all the Soldiers, present and past.
“I also want to thank our families,” he said. “All of our families. They did not sign up for this challenge yet they have been there with us all, just as dedicated and perhaps more courageous as us.”
Ortner thanked Whittington for his guidance and for “building a team that is second to none” as he takes the reins of the 29th.
“Just as on Sept. 10, 2001, none of us know what the future holds,” Ortner said. “As the defense budget gets smaller and world challenges get greater, we cannot even begin to imagine what will happen next. For this reason it is critical that we are ready. We must reach the height of our military potential because we can expect to get called upon.”
When that time happens, he explained, Soldiers will not have time to learn their skills.
“We must be ready, we must be capable,” he told the Soldiers of the 29th. “This nation depends on us.”
“I know you will be ready whatever the challenge may be,” he added. “Whenever it comes and whoever it is. Because we are the 29th Infantry Division.”
Tucker said it’s easy to see why Ortner was selected to lead the 29th.
“He has excelled at every level of command and staff-level assignment,” Tucker said. “Simply put, Brig. Gen. Ortner has the requisite leadership skills, extensive combat experience and strategic vision to successfully lead this great outfit into the future and we in First Army look forward to working closely with you to help sustain your hard-fought readiness.”
Whittington had commanded the 29th Infantry Division since Oct. 7, 2012 and Tucker thanked and praised him for his service and leadership of the 29th.
“Maj. Gen. Whittington’s masterful leadership has skillfully led the 29th Division for more than two and a half years now and his achievements during this timeframe are significant,” Tucker said. “You successfully developed the ‘alignment of training’ concept, which leverages the 29th Division to train like we fight. This unique and innovative training concept is one of Maj. Gen. Whittington’s keystone successes.”
“I commend both Maj. Gen. Whittington and his wife Kimberly for their dedicated commitment to the 29th Division and the great state of Virginia, its Soldiers and families, and our Army during your skilled leadership of this magnificent organization.”
Whittington welcomed Ortner as the new commander and challenged the Division and its Soldiers to continue to strive for excellence.
“I am encouraged and excited to welcome Brig. Gen. Blake Ortner and his wife as the 29th’s next commanding general.” Whittington said. “A proven leader and Infantryman of the finest caliber, I rest well knowing this storied division has Blake at the helm.”
“Our great division must continue to press forward, to accelerate,” he said. “The danger for the Blue and the Gray is not in setting the bar too high, rather the danger rests in setting
the bar low, then achieving it.”
“While I’ve had the privilege to command this historic division, I’ve never lost sight of the sacred trust that history entails, nor my responsibility to preserve and extend its storied legacy,” he added. “The 29th Division stands ready today to answer our nation’s call and in doing so, we honor the sacrifice of our heroes, both past and present. God Bless you all and may God bless the 29th.”
During the ceremony, Headquarters Battalion, 29th ID, commanded by Lt. Col. Scott Bartlett, was represented by its Soldiers and colors while Col. Bill Coffin, commander of the 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, led a delegation from the 116th IBCT.
The 29th Division Band provided music for the ceremony.
The 29th ID was at Fort Pickett to conduct two weeks of annual training. In addition to individual weapons qualification, driver’s training, a combat lifesaver course and other individual training events, the Division headquarters completed a week-long command post exercise while at Fort Pickett.
The 29th Infantry Division is comprised of Soldiers from both the Maryland and Virginia Army National Guard. The division was established in 1917, fought in World War I, was part of the first assault wave during D-Day on June 6, 1944, participated in peacekeeping missions in Bosnia and Kosovo and served a two-tour rotation in Afghanistan from 2010-2012.
In addition to its combat training, the 29th Infantry Division currently provides the Domestic All-Hazards Response Team in FEMA Regions 1 through 5 (states east of the Mississippi). In this role, the 29th is prepared to assist the National Guard and governors during a natural or man-made incident. For fiscal years 2016 and 2017, the 29th Infantry Division will serve as headquarters for Command and Control Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear Response Element-B. The division will provide staff augmentation and support in the event of a catastrophic chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear emergency.
Ortner is a 1983 graduate of University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minn., where he received a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations. He also holds a Masters Degree in Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College Class of 2010.
He received a Regular Army commission through the Reserve Officer Training Corps as an Infantry officer and served on active duty until 1987. In 1989, Ortner joined the Virginia Army National Guard, serving in numerous assignments during more than 20 years in the 116th Infantry Regiment and 29th Infantry Division to include rifle company commander, battalion operations officer, battalion commander, brigade operations officer, brigade executive officer, brigade deputy commander, brigade commander and division operations officer. In 2001, Ortner served as the Division Chief of Operations, Multi-National Division – North as part of the 29th Infantry Division support of Operation Joint Forge in Bosnia-Herzegovinian.
Ortner commanded 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment and deployed the battalion in 2004 to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom as the first Virginia National Guard infantry battalion to deploy to combat since World War II. In 2007, Ortner was assigned as the deputy commander of the 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team and deployed to Baghdad, Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom where he served as a member of the Multi-National Forces – Iraq Area Support Group and later as the chief of operations for MNF-I. He assumed command of the 116th IBCT in June 2009. In May 2011 the brigade headquarters was mobilized for combat operations in Afghanistan supporting Operation Enduring Freedom where he commanded Combined Team Zabul which included active duty and NATO Romanian infantry battalions.
Ortner resides in Stafford and is employed by Paralyzed Veterans of America in Washington, D.C., as the Deputy Government Relations Director working with Congress to support veterans benefits and healthcare services.