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News Maryland

National Guard cleans up city block before deployment

The commanding officer gathered his soldiers early Saturday morning, brought them to attention and delivered details of their mission.

The young men and women saluted, snatched up their arms and occupied the perimeters of a stretch of unfriendly terrain.

But their weapons were brooms and trash bags, not grenades or M-4 rifles, and their battle zone a block of West Baltimore strewn with a little more trash than neighborhood residents would like.

"We want the public to know we don't just go overseas for combat duty — we participate in the life of our communities," said Sgt. Jonathan Adams, leaning on the rake he was using to scoop up litter along Winchester Street.

Adams, 31, of Middle River, is a member of the 1229th Transportation Company, a unit of the Maryland Army National Guard that will deploy to Afghanistan next month. The mission will last up to 400 days.

The company is expected to be among the last sent to the war-torn nation as the U.S. military prepares to complete its withdrawal by the end of 2014.

Before their departure, though, the company decided to perform a day of service to the neighborhood that adjoins its headquarters, the Lt. Col. Melvin S. Cade Readiness Center, a National Guard Armory built in 1959.

"We'll be fulfilling our federal mission overseas, but it's important to remind ourselves and the public that the National Guard is also a state agency, one with a state mission," said Lt. Col. Charles Blomquist, commander of the 1297th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, which oversees the 1229th and four other companies in Maryland. "We're a community-based organization. We draw our strength from communities."

During peacetime or when not deployed, most National Guard members hold civilian jobs, engaging in military training on weekends to maintain combat-readiness. The governor is their commander-in-chief.

When called into combat overseas, they become federal employees and fight alongside full-time soldiers from the other military branches, taking their orders from the president.

"We have our federal mission, but we want to show we care about the people around here, too," said Sgt. John Watkins, a Hagerstown native, as he took a break from sweeping. "This is a good way to give back."

About 80 soldiers, some as young as 19, took part in the cleanup, much of it on the grounds of Friendship Preparatory Academy at Calverton, a charter elementary and middle school on Whitmore Avenue.

They spread out to the four corners of the block bounded by Winchester Street and West Lafayette, Braddish and Whitmore avenues and spent an hour and a half sweeping, raking, and trash-collecting their way toward the middle.

The other half of the company was spread out among other Maryland National Guard locations, handling the paperwork that must be in order before deployment. The two groups were scheduled to switch missions Sunday.

The exercise was one of many that has helped the soldiers — many of them drivers, mechanics and medics — bond as they prepare for their head overseas.

In March and April, they underwent four weeks of combat training at Camp Roberts, a California Army National Guard post in central California.

"Because we're a truck-and-transportation company, we did a lot of driving under battle conditions," said Capt. Ronald Martin, the unit commander.

The company, a historically African-American outfit, has roots dating back to 1879, when a group of local residents formed a militia called the Monumental City Guard. The unit, which became part of the Maryland National Guard in 1882, saw action in World War I, the Korean War and other conflicts under a variety of names.

As the 1229th, it sent crews to Western Maryland last fall to help after snowstorms caused by the remnants of Hurricane Sandy. It was last called to federal duty in 2003, when it was summoned to Iraq.

Most current members have joined the unit in the time since, Martin said, which means that for most, it will be a first taste of life in a combat zone.

The company departs for Fort Hood, Texas, on July 14, where it will get 60 days of premobilization training before heading overseas.

The mission in Afghanistan will include providing security for convoys and transporting commodities, all within combat areas, Martin said.

Adams said some of his loved ones are a bit nervous. "I do and don't talk to them" about his deployment, he confided.

But if there was apprehension among the soldiers, it was hard to detect Saturday.

Watkins said the group has "jelled" over the past few months, and Sgt. Lisa Sampson, a West Baltimore resident, extolled its sense of unity.

"We're not just soldiers. We're battle buddies. We're family," she said. "Everyone has been working so hard, pulling it together. We're cohesive now. I know when we're in-country we're going to do the right thing."

As their departure draws near, the enormity of what they're about to do will hit the young company, Blomquist said, but pushing them hard has provided the boost in confidence they'll need, and the Guard will have spiritual and other support ready for those who need it.

For now, though, Watson's focus was on the task at hand. She took a moment to set down her rake, glanced over at the school building and smiled.

The 1229th was cleaning up "for the teachers who work so hard to educate our children, and for the children, too," she said. "That's what we're fighting for — to keep America beautiful."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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