Virginia National Guard troops all home for first time in 10 years
NORFOLK, Va. — Col. Michelle Rose left the Army in 1994 after two overseas tours and joined the National Guard, hoping to stay closer to home. The Yorktown resident was young and in love and ready to start a family.
The guard offered her a chance to stay in the military without the expectation of repeat foreign deployments.
Then came 9/11.
In the years since, the Virginia National Guard has sent nearly 15,000 citizen-soldiers and airmen overseas, many of them on multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Others were activated for federal duty patrolling the U.S. border in Arizona, and for a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. A record 2,200 guard members deployed from Virginia in 2003.
And now, another milestone: With the end of the Iraq war and fewer ground forces in Afghanistan, every Virginia National Guard unit is home for the first time in a decade.
Gov. Bob McDonnell marked the "historic point" in an open letter to members of the guard last week.
"This is a good time for all Virginians to recognize the important mission of the National Guard in our fight for freedom," he wrote.
Rose didn't join the guard expecting a lengthy overseas deployment. But in 2010, she headed to Afghanistan, leading the Virginia Beach-based 529th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion on a year-long logistics mission.
She stumbled over a line in the governor's letter: "There are no Virginia Army or Air Guard units serving on federal active duty."
"I remember thinking to myself, 'Wow, I haven't seen that statement in years,' " said Rose, a systems engineer at Fort Eustis in civilian life. "I had to read it a couple times."
The lull in deployments is expected to last about a year, said Cotton Puryear, a Virginia Guard spokesman.
After a decade of war, the Virginia National Guard is considered a fully functioning operation force, not a "strategic reserve" as in decades past, Puryear said. The guard's soldiers and airmen can hold their own with active-duty forces, he said.
Units have deployed on missions ranging from combat aviation to logistics support to training Iraqi and Afghan soldiers — in some cases mobilizing with only a few months' notice.
"This isn't the Guard of old," Puryear said.
Most National Guard members work full-time civilian jobs. Many live far from military installations and the services they provide. The strain can be hard on those left behind.
Col. Blake Ortner of Stafford County landed in Bosnia with a guard unit on Sept. 10, 2001 for a peacekeeping mission.
A day later, with rubble smoldering at the Pentagon, the mission's focus shifted to counterterrorism.
Ortner, now the Virginia Army National Guard's operations officer, is a lobbyist for a veterans advocacy group in civilian life. He did two tours in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. The repeat deployments were hard on his family, he said.
After his second deployment to Afghanistan last year, Ortner recalls, he got into an argument with his daughter. She was insisting she was about to start fourth grade. He was certain she was only heading into third.
When he realized she was right — that he had missed an entire year of his daughter's life — it hit him like a punch to the gut.
"In that sense, it's good to slow down for a bit," Ortner said. "This will be a good chance for the force to refocus and recharge."