116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team welcomes new commander

Col. Blake Ortner, far right, watches as Brig. Gen. William R. Phillips, II, the Virginia Army National Guard land component commander, hands the unit colors for the 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team to Col. John Epperly signifying Epperly's assumption of command during a traditional change of command ceremony for the Staunton-based unit held June 17 at Fort A. P. Hill. (Photo by Cotton Puryear, Virginia Guard Public Affairs)

FORT A. P. Hill — Col. John M. Epperly took command of the Staunton-based 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team from Col. Blake C. Ortner in a traditional change of command ceremony held June 17 at Fort A. P. Hill. Brig. Gen. William R. Phillips, II, the Virginia Army National Guard Land Component Commander, presided over the exchange of unit colors that represented the transfer of command.

“As the staff passes from Col. Ortner to Col. Epperly, I have confidence that the 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team’s proud heritage, superb record and dedicated service to our nation will continue unabated in the future,” Phillips said. “The challenges of the future are there, but so is the 116th BCT, ably led by these Soldiers, these patriots.”

Col. Blake Ortner, Brig. Gen. William R. Phillips, II, and Col. John Epperly (left to right) conduct a pass in review of the Soldiers from the Staunton-based 116th Brigade Combat Team during a change of command ceremony held June 17 at Fort A. P. Hill. (Photo by Cotton Puryear, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

With more than 3,500 Soldiers in armories across the state, the 116th IBCT is the largest major command in the Virginia National Guard.

Ortner commanded the 116th IBCT since June 2009, including the brigade headquarters deployment to Afghanistan from July 2011 to January 2012. Epperly served as the rear detachment brigade commander for the remaining units still serving in Virginia during the headquarters’ deployment.

“When I arrived to the BCT in September of 2002, I could not have begun to imagine the events that would occur of the last 10 years,” Ortner said.

Under Ortner’s command, the 116th IBCT Headquarters 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. It 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. 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 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.

Phillips also credited Ortner’s leadership to the brigade achieving 104% strength and a 98% readiness rate for Soldiers trained in the primary military occupational specialty. Phillips presented Ortner with the Legion of Merit for his service to the brigade.

“My greatest honor has been to have the privilege of serving with you,” Ortner told the Soldiers assembled on the parade field at Fort A. P. Hill. “You have excelled in everything you have done. This brigade has been called on to react to short notice mobilizations numerous times, as well as state emergencies. You have done it all with few complaints and have done an exceptional job every time. I think this is the greatest testament to the courage, professionalism and dedication of the Stonewall Brigade Soldiers.”

Brig. Gen. William R. Phillips, II, presents Col. Blake C. Ortner with the Legion of Merit award for his service to the 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team during a change of command ceremony held June 17 at Fort A. P. Hill. (Photo by Cotton Puryear, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs)

Ortner also gave special thanks to the families of the brigade. “They did not sign up for this challenge, yet they have been there with all of us, just as dedicated and perhaps more courageous than us,” he said. “I want them to know how much we all appreciate them as we have take some of you away two or maybe even three times or more.”

Both men gave special thanks to their own families for their support in the military careers, and Epperly gave special recognition to his father, retired Sgt. 1st Class Charles Epperly, and wished him and all the fathers on the parade field a happy Father’s Day.

“The battle streamers on the brigade colors read like an American history book spanning the ages from the Revolution War to the current campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Epperly said. “The Stonewall Brigade has never failed America or the Commonwealth. It is clear that history isn’t quite finished with the Stonewall Brigade.”

Epperly said the “world continues to be a very dangerous place,” and added that he serves “in the best brigade combat team in the United States Army, a brigade that continues to be ready, relevant and responsive to both the needs of the commonwealth and the nation.”

The brigade traces its lineage to November 3, 1741 as the Augusta County Regiment, Virginia Militia. It is often referred to as the “Stonewall Brigade” in honor of former command Brig. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

—–

Additional biographical information:

Ortner is as 1983 graduate of  University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, MN 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 resides in Stafford and is employed by Paralyzed Veterans of America in Washington, D.C. as the Senior Associate Legislation Director working with Congress to support veterans benefits and healthcare services.

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 over twenty 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 of 3rd Battalion 116th Infantry Battalion 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 Two. In 2007, Ortner was assigned as the Deputy Commander of the 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team and deployed to Bagdad, 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 BCT in June 2009 and 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’s military education includes the Airborne School, Infantry Officers Basic Course, Ranger School, Airborne Jumpmaster Course, Military Freefall School, Infantry Officers Advanced Course, Combined Arms Service Staff School, Army Command and General Staff College, U.S. Army War College and the Joint and Combined Warfighting School.

Ortner’s awards and decorations include the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Combat Action Badge, the Ranger Tab, the Parachutist Badge, the Military Freefall Parachutist Badge, the Bronze Star Medal with 3 Oak Leaf Clusters, the Meritorious Service Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Joint Service Commendation Medal, the Army Commendation Medal with 2 Oak Leaf Clusters, the Army Achievement Medal with 2 Oak Leaf Clusters, the Army Reserve Component Achievement Medal with 2 Oak Leaf Clusters, the National Defense Service Medal with bronze service star, the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, the Afghanistan Campaign Medal with 2 bronze service stars, the Iraq Campaign Medal with bronze service star, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the Armed Forces Reserve Medal with M, Silver Hourglass and Numeral 4 devices, the Army Service Ribbon, the Overseas Service Ribbon with Numeral 2 device, the NATO Medal, and the Joint Meritorious Unit Award.

—–

Epperly is a 1989 graduate of the United State Military Academy at West Point where received a Bachelor of Science degree in General Engineering and International Relations. He also holds an MBA in Finance from Drexel University and is a graduate of the U.S. Army War College Class of 2010. He is a resident of Fredericksburg and is employed by Booz Allen Hamilton in Herndon, Virginia supporting the U.S. Army and Department of Defense.

He received a regular Army commission through West Point as an Armor and Cavalry officer and served on active duty until 1997. He joined the Virginia Army National Guard and branch transferred to Infantry. He has served in numerous assignments over the last fifteen years in the 116th Infantry Regiment and 29th Infantry Division to include rifle company commander, battalion operations officer, battalion executive officer and brigade operations officer.

Epperly command of 2nd Battalion, 116th Infantry and later deployed the battalion in support of Operation Vigilant Relief to assist civil authorities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  Following the 116th’s transformation to a brigade combat team, Epperly took command of 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry and deployed the battalion in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Under his command, the battalion was recognized with both the Reckord Trophy and Kerwin Award as the best National Guard Battalion in the U.S. Army during training year 2007 as well as earning a Meritorious Unit Commendation.

Epperly’s military education includes the Airborne School, Air Assault School, Armor Officers Basic Course, Scout Platoon Leader’s Course, Infantry Mortar Leader’s Course, Armor Officers Advanced Course, CAS3, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and the U.S. Army War College.

Epperly’s awards and decorations include the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Parachutist Badge, the Air Assault Badge, the Bronze Star Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal with 2 OLC, the Army Commendation Medal with 3 OLC, the Joint Commendation Medal, the Army Achievement Medal with 1 OLC, Army Reserve Component Achievement Medal with 2 OLC, the National Defense Service Medal with bronze service star, the Iraq Campaign Medal, the Global War on Terror Expeditionary Medal, the Global War on Terror Service Medal, the Korea Defense Service Medal, the Humanitarian Service Medal, the Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal, the Armed Forces Reserve Medal with M device and Bronze Hourglass device, the Army Service Ribbon, the Overseas Service Ribbon, The Meritorious Unit Commendation, the Joint Meritorious Unit Award, the Virginia Bronze Star, the Virginia Commendation Medal, the Governor’s Medal, and the Order of Saint Maurice (Legionnaire) .

View more photos on Flickr:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/vaguardpao/sets/72157630165168402/