Fort Drum commander on shutdown, reductions, deployments, heroism

Army Maj. Gen. Stephen Townsend, 10th Mountain Division commander, center, talks with two commanders in Afghanistan on May 5, 2013.


By GORDON BLOCK | Watertown Daily Times, N.Y. | Published: October 3, 2013

The commander of Fort Drum and the 10th Mountain Division, Maj. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, predicted a much smaller Army in the future than already envisioned by force restructuring and federal budget cuts.

The ongoing Armywide reduction from about 570,000 to 490,000 soldiers by 2017 already has led to the decision to inactivate Fort Drum's 3rd Brigade Combat Team, a loss of about 1,500 soldiers locally. However, the general predicted Wednesday that Army leadership may look to reduce the force further to about 450,000 active-duty soldiers, if not smaller.

"I start getting concerned when I start hearing those numbers, when you start talking about numbers that we haven't seen since before World War II," he said.

Gen. Townsend spoke during a Watertown Noon Rotary Club lunch at the Italian-American Civic Association, Bellew Avenue. His remarks also touched on the 10th Mountain Division's deployments to Afghanistan, the government shutdown and the pride he felt for a pair of recently honored division soldiers.

The post is seeing the return of thousands of soldiers from the 1st and 2nd Brigade Combat Teams. The division's 4th Brigade, based at Fort Polk, La., and the locally based 10th Combat Aviation Brigade are already in the country.

The 3rd Brigade Combat Team is starting to deploy with about 2,000 personnel. The division's headquarters recently was given orders to deploy this winter with about 630 personnel, and the commander said the 10th Sustainment Brigade also will be deploying in the near future.

The deployments likely will take the division up to the American deadline of Dec. 31, 2014, for withdrawing military forces from Afghanistan, a point of pride as the division was among the first to deploy there.

"We've answered our nation's call continuously since 2001," Gen. Townsend said.

Gen. Townsend said he was encouraged by the progress made in Afghanistan, such as the prospect of elections next year, along with the work of the Afghan military and police since taking the lead in operations.

"Can the Afghans hold their country together? I don't know," he said. "I think they sure are fighting for it. I think they've got a good shot at it."

The commander said that in his opinion some kind of international military presence should continue after the 2014 deadline.

"We need to stick through this thing so we don't have to deal with another 9/11 in the future," he said. "That's Townsend's view right there."

Gen. Townsend said regardless of the shape of the Army, there likely would be challenges in the future that would require military involvement.

"Whatever happens in the future, I'm pretty confident that the 10th Mountain Division will be a part of that, just because we have been since we were reactivated here," he said.

As the government shutdown entered its second day Wednesday, Gen. Townsend said the post has been less affected than other installations because of the high level of activity.

"We have enough folks on duty right now that we can accomplish our mission that we have to do," he said.

The post has about 575 furloughed workers, about 42.5 percent of its federal civilian workforce.

The general said the division's missions and potential budget challenges into the future made the post's relationship with the community even more important.

Gen. Townsend also highlighted the heroism of Capt. William D. Swenson, the retired captain with division ties who will receive the Medal of Honor on Oct. 15, along with Staff Sgt. Michael H. Ollis, who will be posthumously awarded the Silver Star later this month after saving a Polish lieutenant during an August attack at his Afghan forward operating base.

"Our soldiers have done some tremendous things, some heroic things," the general said.

Capt. Swenson, the first living Army officer to be nominated for the award in four decades, is the second 10th Mountain Division-affiliated soldier to receive the Medal of Honor since 2001, and third overall. He is being honored for his efforts during a six-hour battle in eastern Afghanistan in September 2009.

Choking up as he told Sgt. Ollis's story, the general revealed more information of the day of the attack. He said Sgt. Ollis told his team members to get their gear as he split off with a single magazine in his rifle and no armor to head toward the site of a massive car bomb explosion at the side of the base, which 10 insurgents wearing suicide vests had entered.

The Polish officer Sgt. Ollis saved, Gen. Townsend said, took shrapnel to one leg in that explosion, and Sgt. Ollis helped get him up and move him toward other personnel defending the base.

Later in the attack, the same Polish lieutenant's other leg was injured when a grenade tossed by one of the 10 suicide attackers exploded near him.

As Sgt. Ollis gave medical treatment to the Polish officer, the last suicide attacker approached the pair. Gen. Townsend said Sgt. Ollis stood up, moved between the Polish officer and the attacker and killed the attacker before his vest exploded, killing Sgt. Ollis.

In addition to his Silver Star, Sgt. Ollis will receive the Gold Medal of the Polish Armed Forces.

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