Freedom Salute honors 29th Infantry Division service in Afghanistan

Secretary of Public Safety Marla Graff Decker presents the Virginia Governor's National Service Medal to Lt. Col. John Winkler Feb. 4 during the Freedom Salute held at Fort Belvoir honoring the service of the 29th Infantry Division in Afghanistan. (Photo by Cotton Puryear, Virginia Department of Military Affairs)

FORT BELVOIR, Va. — Approximately 40 Virginia National Guard Soldiers from the Fort Belvoir-based 29th Infantry Division gathered Feb. 5 to conduct a Freedom Salute in honor of their service in Afghanistan from December 2010 to October 2011. The Soldiers were assigned to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force Joint Command Security Partnering   Team with the mission of assisting with the growth and development of the Afghan National Security Forces where they served as advisers and mentors to senior Afghan leaders. They were part of a NATO Coalition of 49 troop-contributing nations that Security Partnering personnel interacted with daily across Afghanistan.

“I can tell you that every single person in the 29th Infantry that deployed to Afghanistan exceeded all our expectations, and I owe each of them a personal debt of gratitude for being the professionals they are and for letting nothing stand in the way of mission accomplishment,” said Maj. Gen. Michael S. Linnington who served as the ISAF IJC deputy chief of staff for plans and projects during the 29th ID’s deployment. “The Afghans are better for it, NATO is better for it, the United States is better for it, and certainly our Army is better for their heroic service and sacrifice.” Linnington currently serves as the commander of the Military District of Washington.

Approximately 72 Virginia and Maryland National Guard Soldiers who took part in the mission returned home to family and friends Oct. 27, 2011. The Freedom Salute recognized the Soldiers, their families, employers and organizations that contributed significantly to supporting the unit during its deployment. The Freedom Salute Campaign is one of the largest Army National Guard  recognition endeavors in history, designed to publicly acknowledge Army Guard Soldiers and those who supported them during the President’s call to duty for Operations Noble Eagle, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.

As part of the Freedom Salute ceremony, the Soldiers received the Virginia Governor’s National Service Medal from Secretary of Public Safety Marla Graff Decker. The medal was created in 2005 by then-Governor Mark R. Warner to recognize the service of the men and women of the Virginia Army and Air National Guard called to active federal service since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The award was first presented Nov. 11, 2005 at the Virginia War Memorial in Richmond.

During the ceremony, two organizations were recognized with the Minuteman Award and the Center of Influence Award for their support to the unit during the deployment. Gary Kelch, the commander of VFW Post 7327, received the Minuteman Award and Karen Randall received the Center of Influence Award on behalf of American Citizens Encouraging Support.

Marine Corps Maj. Gen. David C. Garza, the Inspector General of the Marine Corps, joined all the senior leaders present for the ceremony in thanking the families for their support in getting the Soldiers ready for the mission as well as throughout the deployment. Garza served as the ISAF IJC deputy chief of staff for joint operations during the 29th ID’s deployment.

“In the Marine Corps we have a saying that we have to be the most ready when the nation is least ready, and in order for us to do that, you have to get us ready,” Garza told the families in Wood Theater. “If you are not ready to help us get ready, then we are not expeditionary ready, and the same is true for the greatest Army in the world, the United States Army. What you did for the 29th was simply magnificent.”

The 29th ID Soldiers were broken up into small sections across the ISAF Command Joint Staff and were out advising and mentoring with the Afghans in multiple locations. “This team’s ability to serve multiple masters also was instrumental because many of these masters had competing interests, different agendas, yet they made it all happen and that was a true mark of their agility and maturity of an incredible staff of true professionals,” Linnington said.

During their time in Afghanistan, the Soldiers of the Security Partnering Team provided advice and assistance to help the Afghan National Police grow from 98,000 to 136,000 and Afghan National Army from 119,000 to 171,000. As those forces grew, the Soldiers of the 29th helped manage every aspect from requisitioning weapons and equipment, developing training and evaluation plans and constructing facilities to house and train the new personnel.

They facilitated the construction of more than $2 billion of infrastructure and facilities for the ANSF including multiple brigade and battalion-size operating bases, combat outposts, police headquarters and ministerial buildings.

They also played an integral role in researching the significant causes to rising rates of attrition in the ANSF and helped senior leaders develop measures to counter the causes in order to continue the growth and development of the security forces.

Soldiers from the 29th worked to support the growth and development of the existing security forces of the Afghan National Army and Afghan Police as well as developing the command structure for a new organization that will have responsibility for Afghan security in the future.

A team of military personnel and civilian contractors led by the 29th ID helped develop an implementation plan for the new Afghan National Army Ground Forces Command. Led by an Afghan three-star general officer, the GFC will provide command and control for all ANA forces at the corps level and below by transition in 2014. The Security Partnering Team helped design the organizational structure for the GFC as well as the strategy for acquiring equipment and facilities for the new organization. The command grew from six officers to more than 300 during the mobilization.

“In 34 years of service as a Marine officer, I have never seen a unit come to theatre, especially Afghanistan, and come do this complex problem set and be immediate value added in the way that you Soldiers of the 29th did,” Garza said. “I am so very proud of you, and it has been so incredibly wonderful to go Afghanistan on my second tour and serve with the greatest army in the world, the United States Army, and to serve with members of the finest National Guard unit this Jarhead has had the pleasure to serve with: the members of the mighty 29th ‘Let’s Go!’ Division.”

The Security Partnering Team was comprised of Soldiers from the Virginia Army National Guard and the Maryland Army National Guard. Of the Soldiers who took part in the mission, approximately 44 are from the Virginia National Guard Soldiers and 20 are from the Northern Virginia area, 15 are from the Central Virginia area, seven are from Southwest Virginia, three are from the Hampton Roads area and the remaining are from various locations across the state. Most of the Soldiers from the Maryland National Guard Soldiers are from the Baltimore-Washington area as well as other locations across the state.

A new group of Maryland and Virginia Soldiers from the 29th Infantry Division took over the mission, and a Transfer of Authority Ceremony was held Oct. 12 in Kabul.

Members of the Security Partnering Team also authored responses to multiple strategic and national policy documents including the Quarterly Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction report, numerous Department of Defense Inspector General reports and Central Intelligence Agency reports.

Soldiers from the 29th Infantry Division last deployed overseas for peace-keeping duty in Kosovo from August 2006 to November 2007.

The 29th Infantry Division has an honored legacy.  It was formed in 1917, but is best remembered for its integral part in Operation Overlord, the landings in Normandy Beach during World War II.  The division was among the first wave of troops to the shore at Omaha Beach.

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