By Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Matwey , 166th Airlift Wing, Delaware Air National Guard
/ Published November 21, 2011
BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan -- Meeting a Delawarean recovering from war wounds at a military hospital in Maryland, getting a tour of several expansive military facilities in Southwest Asia, seeing massive human trauma in a military hospital in Afghanistan and meeting uniformed Delawareans and Delaware National Guard members serving in combat zones has filled the week for Delaware Governor Jack Markell.
On Monday, Nov. 14, Gov. Markell, along with Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, visited the Pentagon to meet with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta for briefings, the initiation to their Pentagon-sponsored trip to Southwest Asia. They travelled with other military personnel as part of the Governors' Delegation Program, started in 2004, which allows state governors to visit deployed service members overseas.
After leaving the Pentagon, Gov. Markell saw wounded soldiers getting physical and occupational therapy at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. There he met three Delawareans whom he called "impressive and inspiring," and observed the amputee center. Gov. Markell said that one Delawarean he met from Sussex County, a Soldier, had undergone 31 surgeries to his arm. "He is so devoted to his service," said Gov. Markell, who said he saw troops courageously doing the therapy and learning to walk. "It is certainly a reminder to all of us of the danger to all who are serving," he said.
By Tuesday the governors were at a military camp in Southwest Asia, where Gov. Markell dined with a couple Delawareans including Sgt. Stephen Richter, a Del. Department of Transportation civil engineer. The governors next visited the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing at another location.
On Wednesday the governors flew to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, and spent the day visiting the base and talking with people. That evening Gov. Markell participated in a video interview via satellite, talking about his experiences, conversations and impressions after his first two days overseas.
"I've met, literally, people from all over the country. The morale is high. They are proud to be here. They are proud to show off their capability, they are proud to show off what they're doing," said Gov. Markell. "They are very clear and cognizant of the dangers but they take their work so proudly." He added, "Members of the military from Delaware and from around the country are doing a spectacular job. "The main impression I have here is just one of incredible devotion, capability, skill, loyalty and patriotism on the part of the folks who are here from all over the United States."
The first stop at Bagram Air Base was a visit to the military hospital, where the governor said he had an incredible experience. "A few hours earlier a Soldier came in who had lost both legs. And it just made it all so real, to see the dedication of the people in the field and the dedication of the people in the hospital," said Gov. Markell, who added he would not forget the scene of the injured Soldier.
The governor then visited Delaware service members deployed in support of U.S. military operations. He met several Air Force Airmen, including Colonel Mike Feeley, deputy operations group commander, 455th Air Expeditionary Wing, who is deployed from his home station position where he is commander of the 166th Operations Group, 166th Airlift Wing, in the Delaware Air National Guard. Gov. Markell also met other troops, most from Kent and Sussex Counties, Del.
On Thursday he was scheduled to visit with some troops from New Castle County, Del.
Asked why he came to the combat zone, Gov. Markell said, "There is no more pressing issue first of all than to make sure that all Americans thank the members of the military who are working so hard and so bravely on our behalf, and also important that when they come home, we not just thank them, but that we also hire them in jobs because we certainly want to put our veterans to work."
"I really appreciate the opportunity to be here, especially to thank the people from Delaware and certainly including the people from the Delaware National Guard.
"I've said often that the proudest part of being governor is to be the commander-in-chief of the Delaware National Guard. All of us back home should be so proud. We've got a couple hundred people in Afghanistan now and of course there are other Delawareans here as well."
Governor Markell said he wanted people "to realize how real this is every single day," and talked about families. "A lot of these people are leaving spouses and kids for many months on end, not just from Delaware, but across the country." Via satellite, the governor said, "It seems so far away, but these are our neighbors, our coworkers who are literally putting themselves at risk on our behalf."
The governor spoke of the members of the Delaware National Guard who have deployed. "We've had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds over the last several years and while everybody back at home goes about their work, they're living under very difficult conditions, putting themselves at risk, really fighting on our behalf and on behalf of the country."
Addressing the conflict in Afghanistan, Gov. Markell said, "Obviously this is a mission that started 10 years ago after 9/11. It's one that obviously the president has indicated an interest, as have others, to wind down, when possible," and the governor added that troops are being withdrawn.
Governor Markell talked about the work of the Connecticut troops whose job it is to operate entry control for many vehicles coming onto the Bagram Air Base to keep the population safe from harm, and all of the U.S. forces on duty he saw in Southwest Asia and in particular in Afghanistan. "Every single person I talked to in [Southwest Asia] and Afghanistan has very much believed in what they are doing," said Gov. Markell.
"They are focused on doing their job in an excellent fashion every minute of every day. You know, these men and women, there isn't much of a social life here. They're basically working all the time. A lot of times they'll have an opportunity to go to the gym on a daily basis, but otherwise they're working. They take it seriously, they're proud of it, and they're going to keep doing it until they are told otherwise."
Seeing Delawareans was a highlight for the governor.
"They had maybe a couple hours notice that I was coming. They asked me to get in touch with family back home which I certainly look forward to doing. Most importantly, it is important for them to know that they are remembered -- that people back home are thinking about them or praying for them," said Gov. Markell. "I bring them, especially the folks in the National Guard, the greetings and good wishes of General Vavala [Major Gen. Frank Vavala, Adjutant General, Delaware National Guard], who is just thinking about them and advocating for them every single day."
"I can't wait until they come home, safely, that's what it's all about.
"These are not just great Soldiers, and Airmen, and folks from the Navy and other forces. These people have amazing skills," said Gov. Markell. "One of the things I love about visiting the people of the National Guard, 2,500 of them from Delaware back home, their skills are tremendous and we can do so much with them back home building the economy, building jobs, helping them build careers. That's of course what I'd love to see them doing. In the meantime they have a mission to do and they're doing it incredibly well."
There are about 225 Soldiers from the Delaware Army National Guard serving in Afghanistan for 10 months. That includes about 175 Soldiers from the 1049th Transportation Company headquartered in Seaford, Del. and about 50 Soldiers from the 126th Medical Company headquartered at the Army Aviation Support Facility on the New Castle Airport in New Castle, Del.
The 1049th runs convoy operations and convoy security, and their Soldiers will come home before the New Year. The 126th operates Black Hawk helicopters as air ambulances to transport casualties, and their Soldiers return home next spring.
Since Oct. 2001 nearly 2,400 Soldiers and Airmen from the Delaware National Guard have been activated federally and deployed overseas, most more than once. About 95 percent of the Delaware National Guard force of about 2,500 people has deployed.
The Army Guard has year-long deployments and the Air Guard has shorter (one-six month) but more frequent deployments, with main rotations 15-18 months apart.
This spring about 200 Airmen from the Delaware Air National Guard deployed for 90 days to Afghanistan operating C-130 transport aircraft, and a dozen security forces Airmen came home last month after deploying for six months to Afghanistan.
Delaware ANG C-130 transport aircraft have flown throughout Afghanistan for part of most years from 2004 to 2011, moving U.S. and coalition troops throughout the country by airdrop and airland missions.
Members of the Delaware ANG 142nd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron have operated in Afghanistan for 10 years, starting just weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, with virtually all of their 75 unit members having deployed multiple times to help care for and transport thousands of wounded troops.