Secretary of the Army John McHugh shows appreciation to the Soldiers of the 29th Infantry Division

Secretary of the Army John McHugh meets Soldiers of the 29th Infantry Division, Virginia Army National Guard, at Fort Belvoir, Va., April 2, 2012, before having lunch and talking with the Soldiers about their recent Afghanistan deployment. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. John G. Martinez)

FORT BELVOIR, Va. — Secretary of the Army John McHugh showed his appreciation during lunch with Soldiers of the 29th Infantry Division April 2 at Fort Belvoir.

McHugh spent more than an hour with the members of the 29th Infantry Division during lunch at Fort Belvoir’s Officers’ Club. The Soldiers returned last fall from being deployed in Afghanistan.

“I have a deep gratitude and appreciation to be able to sit down with Guard Soldiers who recently returned.  Thank you for being great citizen-Soldiers,” said McHugh.  “The Army is challenged on many fronts and there is a growing divide between citizens and Soldiers and you provide a proud face of the Army. “

McHugh was asked a myriad of questions ranging from problems in Afghanistan to force structure.  He has been to Iraq and Afghanistan 22 times in the last several years.

“I really appreciated the questions and the candid answers,” said Maj. John McLees, operations officer for the 29th Infantry Division. “Secretary McHugh didn’t always tell us what we wanted to hear, but told us the truth.”

When asked about the future role of the Army National Guard, McHugh stated his intent is to keep the Guard an operational asset. “The Army will see strength drop from 570,000 to 490,000 by fiscal 2017.  The Army Guard will see a loss of 5,000 Soldiers by 2017, but will be better off than the Air Guard.  The reduction of the Guard will be manageable,” said McHugh.

“I have frequent chances to visit Guard units when deployed forward but less frequent when they are re-deployed.  This is a unique chance to show my gratitude, say ‘thank you,’ and have a frank conversation,” said McHugh.

The Soldiers attending  were largely composed of the 29th Infantry Division Headquarters assigned to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force Joint Command Security Partnering Team.  Their mission was to assist with the growth and development of the Afghan National Security Forces where they served as advisors and mentors to senior Afghan leaders.  They helped the Afghan National Police grow from 98,000 to 136,000 and the Afghan National Army from 119,000 to 171,000.  Members of the 29th facilitated in the construction of more than $2 billion of infrastructure and facilities for the ANSF.

McHugh was sworn in as the 21st Secretary of the Army on Sept. 21, 2009 and has statutory responsibility for matters relating to the United States Army: manpower, personnel, reserve affairs, installations, environmental issues, weapons systems and equipment acquisitions, communications, and financial management.