Guard battalion prepares to deploy

Michael Martin, 40, a computer detection systems specialist from Manassas, stands in formation with the Virginia National Guard's Winchester-based 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, as they prepare to travel to Fort Pickett near Blackstone. The group has received a mobilization order to enter active federal service for duty in Southwest Asia. Rich Cooley/Daily

WINCHESTER — A Virginia National Guard battalion based in Winchester is headed overseas for the first time in more than seven years.

The 450-troop contingent — 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team — will be bound within a few months from Fort Bliss, Texas to a destination somewhere in Southwest Asia.

Virginia National Guard spokesman Cotton Puryear refused to disclose the location, citing a need for operational security. Southwest Asia, as defined by the Department of Defense, encompasses a group of 20 countries stretching from Kazakhstan in the north to Yemen in the south, Egypt in the east and Pakistan in the west.

Trucks filled the driveway extending back toward the National Guard readiness center Thursday morning. They were scheduled to leave at noon for three weeks of administrative and field training at Fort Pickett. After a bit of time back home, the battalion is scheduled to report for about another 45 days of training at Fort Bliss in early September before it heads overseas.

Capt. Thomas O’Connor, 44, of Alexandria, counted at least 70 guard members from Shenandoah, Warren and Frederick counties included in the deployment, which will provide security in and around bases and other facilities used by coalition forces.

Troy Rodriguez, 22, left, a supply specialist from Manassas, and Pakapri Sesay, 25, right, a supply sergeant from Woodbridge, walk along a line of convoy vehicles as the Winchester-based Virginia Army National Guard unit prepares to travel to Fort Pickett near Blackstone on Thursday morning for training. Rich Cooley/Daily

“This will be my third deployment,” O’Connor said. “We do have a soldier, this will be his fifth deployment.

“If I had to say, for a good number of our soldiers, this will be in addition to previous deployments. We have a lot of experience in the unit as we mobilize.”

Other members of O’Connor’s unit said they were looking forward to going overseas. The battalion, which is headquartered in Winchester, includes company-level units based in Winchester, Woodstock and Leesburg.

Sgt. Eric Jessee lives in Winchester and works in a distribution warehouse. Jessee, 24, has already spent six years in the Guard, including a six-month stint in Iraq in 2010. He has been assigned to a sniper section in the infantry.

“I’m excited to be going,” Jessee said. “It’s another chance to be going overseas and do what I signed up for.”

Ouma Kabli, 21, an automated logistical specialist from Stafford, mounts a flag on the mirror of her convoy unit as members of the Winchester Army National Guard prepare to travel to Fort Pickett, near Blackstone on Thursday morning. Rich Cooley/Daily

Sgt. Ryan Croft of Arlington works on Capitol Hill as an aide to U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis. Croft said he joined the Guard “because I felt a call to serve in a greater capacity than I had in the civilian world.”

Croft said the deployment will be his first and, despite the uncertainties associated with an overseas mission, something he readily accepts.

“I knew when I swore an oath to the Constitution that this was certainly a possibility,” Croft said.

Guard units normally receive between six and 18 months to mobilize for active federal assignments, which often involve overseas deployments. The 3rd Battalion received only 180 days for its latest deployment, but O’Connor was unfazed. Active duty mobilizations are not supposed to exceed 400 days, but the Secretary of Defense can extend tours for a total of two years if deemed necessary to meet operational demands.

“We’ve had a short time to prepare for the upcoming mission, but because of unit readiness we will be able to meet the mission requirements on time,” O’Connor said.

Eric Jessee, a Winchester-based Virginia National Guard member, will be heading to Southwest Asia with his unit. Rich Cooley/Daily

O’Connor provided the following numbers of soldiers from area communities who are scheduled to serve as part of the deployment:

Winchester, 30; Stephens City, 5; Middletown, 3; Front Royal 10; Strasburg, 1; Woodstock, 5; Mount Jackson, 4; Edinburg, 5; New Market, 2.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com