By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 8, 2010 - The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff thanked the soldiers of the Vermont National Guard today as they said goodbye to family and friends and prepared to trade the snows of New England for the snows of Afghanistan. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen spoke to more than 200 troops of the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team and their families at a departure ceremony. The unit will go to Camp Atterbury, Ind., for training before deploying to Regional Command East in Afghanistan.
Snow fell outside as the "Green Mountain Boys" formed up inside the Champlain Valley Exposition Center.
"It's great to be here," Mullen told reporters before the event, noting his strong belief that the National Guard deserves recognition for all it does. "It's part of what we're doing as a military and a nation."
The admiral and his wife, Deborah, met with Guardsmen and their families and said they treasure such opportunities. "We recognize the seriousness of the situation, and we recognize the challenges," the chairman said. "We also take great comfort in the strength of our military, families and communities."
All of Vermont seemed to have turned out for the event. Gov. Jim Douglas, U.S. Sen. Pat Leahy and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch spoke to the troops and promised to do all they could to support them during their deployment.
When Defense Department officials announced the deployment 18 months ago, the situation in Afghanistan was much different, Mullen noted. "Afghanistan has become a more dangerous place," he said. "One of the reasons the president made the decision to add 30,000 troops is because the insurgency is much tougher and more violent."
But while the mission is tougher, he added, it is not impossible. "We know how to do counterinsurgency," Mullen said. "I've been doing this for over four decades, and I have great confidence in them. We know what to do, [and] we know how to do it."
More than 1,500 Vermonters will deploy with the brigade. Air Force Lt. Col. Lloyd J. Goodrow, the Vermont Guard's public affairs officer, said this is the largest call-up for Vermont since World War II.
"We're a small state, and this is a large number for us," Goodrow said. "Just about every family in Vermont is affected by this deployment."
The Vermont unit is a critical part of the change that needs to occur over the next year, Mullen said. It will be part of the counterinsurgency effort that has to show results by July 2011 – the date President Barack Obama set to begin turning over security responsibility to trained and ready Afghan security forces.
The chairman told reporters he comes to these ceremonies to show the regard he feels for reserve-component servicemembers. "We could not have succeeded in Iraq without the Guard and Reserve," he said. "I'm doing this today to tell them thank you, to tell their families thank you. They are a critical part of our national security, and that's why I came."
More than half of the soldiers deploying were wearing combat patches signifying a previous deployment. The chairman said he understands the stresses the soldiers and families have been through, and noted that Defense Department officials are working to ensure families have what they need to get through deployments. And the Vermont National Guard, he added, is doing its part.
"The focus of the Vermont National Guard leadership has been fantastic," he said. "What's really happened is the readiness of families to sustain this has really become an integral part of the readiness of the force."
The hall was packed with families and friends seeing the soldiers off. Outside, people stood with American flags, wishing them Godspeed. Mullen said he is thankful for the support the American people are giving their servicemembers.
"As a Vietnam veteran myself, I'm very much aware of what happens when the people of America don't support the men and women in uniform," he said. "Since these wars have started, that's something I've been extremely concerned and vigilant about. What I've seen throughout our country is that the people of America strongly support those who serve and those who give and those who sacrifice, and their families."
The chairman said he is aware of the debate in the United States over American involvement in Afghanistan. "As a military guy, I carry out the orders of the president of the United States – we all do," Mullen said. He called Obama's decision on the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy "courageous" and one that will allow American and NATO forces to reverse the momentum of the insurgency in Afghanistan.