Staunton-based 116th BCT Headquarters holds Freedom Salute to honor service in Afghanistan

Virginia Secretary of Public Safety Marla Graff Decker presents a certificate of recognition signed by Gov. Bob McDonnell to Col. Blake Ortner, commander of the 116th Brigade Combat Team, May 20 in Richmond. (Photo by Cotton Puryear, Virginia National Guard)

RICHMOND, Va. — Family, friends and employers joined approximately 160 Soldiers from the Virginia National Guard’s Staunton-based 116th Brigade Combat Team Headquarters at the Richmond Convention Center May 20 to conduct a Freedom Salute in honor of their service in Afghanistan. Virginia Secretary of Public Safety Marla Graff Decker joined Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Long, Jr., the Adjutant General of Virginia, in thanking the Soldiers for their service and also presented a certificate of recognition signed by Gov. Bob McDonnell. The Freedom Salutes also recognized approximately 20 Soldiers from the Bowling Green-based Detachment 1, Company B, 116th Brigade Special Troops Battalion.

“The 116th did a tremendous job,” Decker said. “What you do is very important for our commonwealth and country. Many of you have deployed more than once, some of you more than three times, and each time it is my hope that we thank you for what you do.

Decker also said it was very important to take time to thank the families and expressed her appreciation for their support, as well as bringing words of appreciation from Governor Bob McDonnell.

“You all did something no other National Guard unit has ever done, and that was to command active duty forces and NATO maneuver battalions in combat,” said Col. Blake Ortner, commander of the 116th. “I think that is a testament to the success and ability of the Virginia National Guard. You did everything exceedingly well, and you are among the finest Soldiers I have ever had the opportunity to serve with.”

The Soldiers officially began federal active duty May 15, 2011, and they served in Afghanistan from July 2011 to January 2012. They trained at Camp Shelby, Miss., for approximately 60 days prior to deploying to Afghanistan, and they mobilized with just 60 days notice. The unit served as headquarters for Combined Team Zabul where they conducted full-spectrum counterinsurgency operations in Zabul Province in southeast Afghanistan, a region nearly the size of the state of New Jersey.

The 116th BCT Headquarters was the first time a National Guard brigade commanded all active duty and NATO maneuver forces, as well as National Guard support forces in Afghanistan. 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.

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 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 emplacers.

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.

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.

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 returned 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 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.