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Christmas Comes Early To Force Protectors

One hundred and sixty two soldiers of the Virginia National Guard got an early Christmas present Monday morning at Fort Belvoir — a departure ceremony. It marked the official completion of their one year tour of duty providing force protection to a base that has become increasingly critical to the global war on terrorism.

Based in Portsmouth, Va, the 3rd Battalion, 111th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, manned the gates and secured the grounds starting February 2003. They will return to their home base on January 5, 2004. But most will be able to spend Christmas with their families as a result of holiday leaves.

"The things you have done for this country is a spirit that can not be denied," Col. T.W.Williams, Fort Belvoir Garrison Commander, told the soldiers seated in Scott Hall. "You did a magnificent job and we have no way to truly repay you except with our gratitude."

The unit established a level of professionalism and thoroughness in bringing security to the base that is unsurpassed in Belvoir's long history, Williams emphasized. "I have files full of letters about this unit and not one is negative," he said.

SECURITY AT Belvoir's gates has been taken over by a private civilian contractor. This was done so that Army troops could be freed up for the ongoing struggle against terrorism, according to Captain John McLees, the commanding officer of the unit.

"We have manned gates where we average 24,000 entrances a day," McLees explained. "Since we began, the support we have received from the personnel on this base has been unmatched."

Williams acknowledged, "This is the first time we have had a National Guard unit on base as active duty personnel. You have been able to provide a level of security here that people have almost gotten complacent. The challenge of the security people taking your place is huge.

"You are now a part of history. What you have done has never been done before. This post has some of the most critical assets anywhere," Williams said.

The departing military unit will be the last such unit to staff Fort Belvoir's gates. A private South Carolina based company will take over the mission as part of a Department of the Army contract.

Each member of the unit was recognized by the Secretary of the Army with either a commendation or award for service. Even though their job is complete at Fort Belvoir they remain subject to deployment, according to Army information.

SEVERAL MEMBERS of the unit opted to remain on active duty as part of the security force at The Pentagon. They had already assumed their new responsibilities and were not present.

Following the formal ceremony a reception was held to further thank the troops for their sacrifices and those of their families throughout the last year. Kicking off the festivities, Col. Williams used a ceremonial military sword to cut the cake.

Originally constituted on July 2, 1946, in the Virginia National Guard, the unit has been redesignated several times throughout the years. In February 2003, they were mobilized for Operation Noble Eagle to provide Force Protection/Access Control at Fort Belvoir and throughout the US Army Military District of Washington.