BEDFORD — The Virginia National Guard’s Lynchburg-based 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team was deployed Saturday after a sendoff ceremony at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford.
Troops will be deployed to Africa to provide a security force for the Combined Joint Task Force — Horn of Africa. The battalion will be providing security for bases the Department of Defense maintains will help build partnerships with host nations and improve safety and stability in the region.
This marks the battalion’s fourth federal active duty mobilization since Sept. 11, 2001, and the largest single-unit Virginia National Guard mobilization since World War II.
According to the office of Gov. Ralph Northam, who was in attendance and spoke at the ceremony, approximately 1,000 Army National Guard Soldiers will mobilize as Task Force Red Dragon under the command of the Lynchburg-based 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.
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Virginia Army National Guard units from Bedford, Charlottesville, Lexington, Pulaski and Suffolk and a Kentucky Army National Guard unit from Somerset, Kentucky, are part of the task force.
Families, friends and fellow soldiers officially sent off troops Saturday at the Bedford ceremony. Soldiers will report to Fort Bliss, Texas, for approximately 30 to 45 days of additional mobilization training before heading overseas.
According to Northam’s office, the troops will join the Virginia National Guard’s Fort Belvoir-based 29th Infantry Division and Virginia Beach-based 329th Regional Support Group already serving on federal active duty in the Middle East, and additional units will mobilize in the coming months.
By January 2022, more than 2,000 Virginia National Guard personnel will be mobilized, the most since the Iraq surge in 2007. It is the most soldiers the division has mobilized since 1942.
The unit is one of the Virginia National Guard’s most deployed battalions in the last 20 years, and it carries on the rich traditions of the 29th Infantry Division’s World War I and World War II service, Northam’s office said.
Northam at the ceremony said he has been proud to serve as the battalion’s commander in chief.
“And whether it has been for natural disasters — we've had several in the last four years — or whether it has been for the civil unrest, whether it has been for deployments around the world or in particular for all that you have done to keep Virginians safe during the pandemic, whether it be helping to get [personal protective equipment] distributed, helping to have Virginians tested or now helping Virginia's to be vaccinated, I say 'thank you,'” he said.
Northam served for 8 years in the U.S. Army. He told the soldiers he has been in their position and remembers getting a 2 a.m. call informing him he was going to Iraq.
“So I understand what you are going through and on behalf of a grateful Virginia and a grateful country, I say 'thank you for your service,'” he said. “So I have just a simple ask of all of you and that is to serve this Commonwealth and serve this country proudly. I know you will. I ask you all to take care of each other. I have been in your shoes and it is so important that you take care of your fellow soldiers.”
Lt. Col. James Tierney, commander of the Lynchburg-based 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, said the ceremony is a reminder the troops are a part of something larger.
"We're part of a storied unit that earned its place in history by spearheading the Allied invasion on D-Day as the first wave on Omaha Beach to ultimately secure the blessings of liberty," he said.
He said the same unit helped to support peace in Kosovo and fought in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East to defeat a growing terrorist threat to the United States.
“[This is a] unit that helped local and state authorities respond to the civil unrest in the Commonwealth in the spring of 2020 and supported federal law enforcement in January of this year to secure the United States Capitol, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and the 2021 presidential inauguration ceremony," Tierney said. "The sacrifices of the 29th Infantry Division in the 116th Infantry Regiment on Omaha Beach are represented so strongly here at this memorial.”
The battalion is trained and equipped to accomplish a wide range of missions throughout the U.S. Africa Command area of responsibility, Northam’s office said, but its primary objective is to provide security for the various forward operating bases maintained by the Department of Defense to build partnerships with host nations and improve safety and stability in the region.
Approximately 825 soldiers assigned to Task Force 183 deployed to Iraq in 2011, and about 775 troops from the Winchester-based 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment deployed to Iraq from September 2007 to April 2008.
April Cheek-Messier, the memorial's president, said over the years society has pulled inspiration from the World War II generation. Now that inspiration comes from the generation of soldiers who stood before her Saturday, she said.
"You represent the very best our country has to give and with immense gratitude, we thank you and we salute your valor, fidelity and the sacrifice that you and your families make daily to make our country and the world a better place," she said. "Our thoughts and prayers are with you as you leave on your mission and we will be waiting for your safe return."
Maj. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, adjutant general of Virginia, said it’s important to recognize the battalion is a great and storied group and belongs to one of the most famous and well-known units in the U.S. Army.
"You're well trained. You are well led and we have every confidence that you will be very successful in your deployment to the African continent," Williams told the troops. "The road to today was a long and oftentimes tough journey. We couldn't be here though if it weren't for two key groups, your employers and most of all your families."