By Eric Durr, New York National GuardJanuary 31, 2020
LATHAM, N.Y. -- Seven years after returning from Afghanistan, New York Army National Guard Soldiers of Headquarters Company and Bravo Company of the 427th Brigade Support Battalion, are being recognized for their service thanks to a congresswoman, a general and a warrant officer who wouldn't give up.
For nine months in 2012, the 200 Soldiers processed and shipped thousands of tons of gear worth millions of dollars from 175 bases, combat outposts and operating locations that were being shut down.
"It was definitely a demanding job as our units were the first-ever tasked with this unique mission," recalled Lt. Col. Todd Balog who was then a Base Closure Assistance Team leader.
As the tour ended, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Douglas Sherman, a platoon leader in Bravo Company wrote the request for a Meritorious Unit Commendation for the New York Guardsmen and women.
The award recognizes units for exceptionally meritorious performance for six months in a combat zone.
The commander of the 18th Combat Service and Support Battalion, Lt. Col. Michelle M. Letcher, approved the award and the paperwork was sent up the administrative food chain.
Then it vanished.
Sherman, though, wasn't willing to just let it go.
"Our Soldiers were given a mission they weren't trained for, they broke down into completely new teams, they learned new skills, and they worked hard in tough conditions accounting for and shipping millions of dollars in supplies," he said. "They deserved to be recognized."
The mission required turning two companies from a brigade support battalion into the Central Command, or CENTCOM, Material Retrograde Element, dubbed CMRE in Army shorthand.
They helped shut down forward operating bases and other facilities to meet President Barack Obama's directive to wrap-up major conventional combat operations in Afghanistan by 2014.
At Camp Shelby, Mississippi, the vehicle maintenance experts in Bravo Company, and the Headquarters Company personnel, learned new skills involving inventories, identifying different categories of equipment and how to assist units on the ground in packing up and shipping their gear back home. It's a process the Army calls a retrograde.
The Soldiers reorganized into Base Closure Assistant Teams that worked with the 82nd Airborne Division, the Australian Army, and the Marine Corps to shut down locations across Afghanistan.
The companies established a Retrograde Sort Yard team to synchronize operations at three central locations which shipped out 9,000 containers of equipment. A Materials Redistribution team was organized and executed a $15 million contract putting 195 civilians in place to continue the movement of material.
In one case, a Retrograde Property Assistance Team moved 300 vehicles and 12,000 pieces of equipment belonging to the 82nd Airborne Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team over a four week period.
"The number of bases intended to close in 2012 and the amount of property to retrograde was astronomical," Balog recalled. "It felt like an overwhelming undertaking that we were not prepared for."
The Soldiers, who didn't have their own vehicles, also had to figure out how to get to the FOBs and combat outposts they were supposed to help shut down, Balog added.
The New Yorkers "adapted," Balog said.
They used their civilian life skills and figured out how to execute the vague official guidance, Balog explained. Each team wrote the rulebook for the operation which they passed along to their replacements.
So because he thought the 427th Soldiers deserved recognition for all this work, between 2013 and 2017, Sherman kept trying to figure out where the paperwork for the MUC went.
He also had help from the former battalion commander, Lt. Col. Letcher, who along the way became Col. Letcher and then Brig. Gen. Letcher in September 2018. She used her contacts to try to help track down the status of the award, Sherman said.
Finally, in 2017, Army Human Resources Command told Sherman that he should resubmit the award paperwork.
The catch, though, was that because two years had expired since the two companies left federal duty in January 2013, an endorsement from a member of Congress was required.
Representative Elise M. Stefanik, who represents New York's 21st Congressional District, was happy to provide the endorsement.
"The Maneuver Area Training Equipment Site located at Fort Drum supports active duty, National Guard and Reserve units and is run by many of the Soldiers that were missioned and deployed for this current request. I am extremely proud of this unit and their service to this great nation," Stefanik wrote.
"They are more than deserving of this award," she added in a March 2018 memorandum.
Letcher also added a new endorsement to her original approval of the award.
"I strongly recommend the Meritorious Unit Commendation be awarded to the New York Army National Guard Soldiers that served during my command for their tireless efforts, outstanding contributions and exemplary service," the general wrote to Army Human Resources Command.
Sherman's work and the support from Letcher and Stefanik paid off in December 2019, when the Army cut orders awarding the MUC.
The Soldiers who served in the two units then are always entitled to wear the ribbon, which is red and worn above the left pocket. Soldiers who currently serve in the unit are entitled to wear it until they join another unit.
Balog said that it's good to see the work the 427th Soldiers did in 2012 being recognized.
"The hard work and dedication of each Soldier are what made us successful as a unit," he said.