As the Maryland National Guard prepares for what could be its final deployment to Afghanistan, its commander sees a "pivotal point" in the nation's history.
More than a decade of deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq and other battlegrounds since Sept. 11, 2001, has produced a highly skilled and deeply experienced generation of warriors. But with the United States out of Iraq and planning to leave Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. James Adkins sees a new challenge.
"Many of the soldiers that are serving now have known only war," he said Thursday from Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia, where members of the 244th Engineer Co. are training for a deployment starting later this year. "The question is going to be, as we come back and are not deploying as much as we have been, can we train to the same level, can we keep them engaged, do they feel like they're still making significant contributions?"
The Baltimore-based company is the last Maryland guard unit scheduled to go to the country where the United States launched its war on terror more than 11 years ago. President Barack Obama, who pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011, plans to complete the withdrawal from Afghanistan next year.
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Maryland National Guard has deployed nearly 4,000 soldiers and airmen to Afghanistan. Members have had a broad range of duties such as mentoring the Afghan Army and police, serving as infantry, evacuating wounded soldiers and flying drones.
Twelve Maryland guard members have been killed in action.
First Sgt. James Pennington, who has served in the guard for 24 years, has seen the organization transformed.
"Since the National Guard's become a huge part of the rotation, it's just been a huge change in our training and our preparation," said the Frostburg man, who has deployed to Afghanistan and to Djibouti. "It's also helped us get better with our readiness, because the funding has been there for better equipment and more training."
Members of the 244th Engineer Co. are waiting to hear the details of their yearlong mission. The 147 members include carpenters, plumbers and electricians, among others.
"All we have been told is we will be doing something within our construction capabilities," said 1st Lt. Sarah Vandy, the unit's executive officer. "We can come up with about 10 different scenarios, easily, just kind of off the top of heads."
The key, she said, is to be prepared for anything.
"We might start on one mission and that might change four times," the Rockville woman said. "We're taught to be very flexible, and that is the way our training is driven, so that you build your core abilities and you aren't being super-specific, because you want to be able to do a broad amount of tasks."
Since arriving at Fort A.P. Hill, an Army base north of Richmond, members have trained on weapons and tactics. On Thursday, they used a new GPS system to find their way through a wooded area.
"Warrior-type tasks," Pennington said. "Your basic battle skills."
While the Pentagon will continue to deploy troops — including Maryland guard members — in support of the war on terror, their numbers are expected to be much smaller.
Adkins sees a transition similar to the end of World War II, and anticipates challenges for the guard.
"The combat experience, the mobilization experience … the question is going to be maintaining those skills," he said. "Those individuals that have come back from deployments, they're the future of the guard. They've got to take what they've learned, and as new soldiers and airmen come into the Maryland National Guard, they've got to pass that knowledge on."
One advantage for keeping guard members engaged, he said, is its domestic mission of responding to stateside emergencies. Marylanders are called up for hurricanes and other disasters at home, and have deployed to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, to California to help fight wildfires, and to the Mexican border to help track smugglers and migrants.
"There's that sense of that dual mission, that dual responsibility to support both the feds and aid the citizens of Maryland when needed," he said.
Vandy, who deployed to Iraq early in that war, says combat experience has strengthened the guard for the work back home.
"The guard ends up being really the first responder," she said. "By being there and doing these overseas missions, it thoroughly prepares us for the stateside missions."
Adkins sees another challenge.
"Individuals that are used to significant resources over the last 10 or 12 years, we're going into a more sparse environment where they've got to be good stewards of the resources that are given," he said. "Because there's obviously going to be less as our nation tackles the fiscal challenges that we have right now."
First Lt. Sid Hays is the commander of the 244th Engineer Co. After Afghanistan, he's hoping the unit will spend more time with its neighbors. Members are teaming with the Baltimore City Fire Department to do work at the Engine Co. 45 firehouse in Northeast Baltimore.
"What I would like to do when we get back is really get more involved within the community," Hays said. "Especially in Baltimore, where we're located, making sure that the community knows that we're there, and that we're a resource for them."
For now, Hays and the rest are focused on their deployment. Pennington, who served in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009, was looking forward to going back.
"Being there at the end will us give us a historical perspective on how we left it," he said. "We'll all know exactly how Afghanistan was at the time the U.S. pulled out, and we'll see how it goes from there."
Md. National Guard by the numbers
3,946 – Members who have served in Afghanistan since 9/11
4 – Members killed in Afghanistan
394 – Members currently in Afghanistan
147 – Members of 244th Engineer Co. heading to Afghanistan