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Delaware Guard home safe and sound, but uncertain

NEW CASTLE, Del. — The Delaware National Guard's work in Afghanistan is just about done.

The last Delaware soldiers in the country returned to the U.S. three weeks ago. A solitary Air Guardsman on duty in Kandahar leaves at the end of October — two months before nearly all U.S. troops will be gone. Fewer than 10 aeromedical airmen will deploy to Afghanistan this fall for a few months. No additional Delaware Guard units are scheduled to return.

That's a mixed bag for Maj. Gen. Frank Vavala, the state adjutant general. He's glad they're nearly all home, safe and sound.

"It's exhilarating to know that you have your last large formation coming out of the war zone," Vavala said the day after a July 1 ceremony honoring 40 members of the 150th Engineer Company, which spent nine months helping close U.S. forward operating bases in Afghanistan.

"It's been a very long, protracted engagement," he said. "And to have what I feel is our last large-unit formation come out of there really gives me a great sense of solace. So I sleep better at night now."

At the same time, Vavala has concerns. They're related.

The end of the Afghanistan war spells the loss of war-designated training funds — a surplus more than normal appropriations that the Guard has enjoyed since 9/11. This, he says, will impact Guard combat readiness.

And in a far cry from 2013, the state Guard's busiest year in memory, there are no Delaware Army Guard deployments, anywhere, scheduled for 2015.

"We don't see anything out on the horizon right now," Vavala said. "Normally a year, a year-and-a-half out, we've got an indication of what units are gonna be called to do what."

The Air Guard, owner of eight soon-to-be-obsolete C-130s it is desperate to find the funding to upgrade, will deploy in 2015, but probably not until mid-year, he said.

Vavala worries that, on the Army side, the reduced flow of defense dollars and lack of deployment activity will combine to feed the perception the active Army has clearly worked to build in Congress — that it should remain relatively stronger than the Guard as defense spending is slashed.

The lack of action also could affect Guard recruiting, he said. Today's reserve component troops, he believes, join up expecting to deploy.

More than 2,000 state Guardsmen have served in Afghanistan since 9/11.

State Army Guard troops are currently deployed to Kuwait, and they'll rotate out with another flying unit in August. Additionally, an Air Guard civil engineer unit is set to go to Kuwait, and at least some aeromedical personnel could be in the region come fall. Vavala has a fresh concern for these service members: Iraq.

"What's gonna happen in Iraq?" Vavala said. "We don't know, you know? Is that gonna call for more troops in there? Are we gonna be re-engaged again in the Middle East? It's a very volatile situation there."

Afghanistan's future also remains to be seen, but the near 13-year U.S. effort there is on an inexorable slide toward December, after which only a minimal force of 9,800 troops will remain. It'll be a combination of trainers and Special Forces operators, according to the White House.

Vavala said he doesn't anticipate any of those trainers coming from Delaware.

While "no one likes conflict," Vavala said, he acknowledges that the Delaware Guard has benefited from its deployments to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. "They helped us refine and hone our skillsets," he said. "Conflicts will do that. And the resourcing that comes along with that gives us the opportunity to train harder on the latest equipment."

Going forward, much of that — modern gear, and a level of experience in the Guard and reserves not seen since World War II -- could gradually be lost, Vavala said. "So the concerns going forward ... are we gonna be able to be resourced at the levels necessary to remain this very viable force that can be called on by the Army and the Air Force going forward to address any contingencies?"

The answer will begin to reveal itself in the defense spending bills being debated in Washington. The process, particularly on the Army side, has been contentious — what Vavala called a "food fight."

"Our folks feel strongly, as do I, that we have proven our worth to the nation," Vavala said. "And it makes good sense to continue to invest in our Army and Air National Guard so that we can remain ready to be able to fulfill the needs of the nation and our state."

McMichael also reports for the (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal.

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