Over the past week, nearly 3,000 men and women of the Florida Army National Guard returned to the United States, concluding a yearlong overseas deployment to Kuwait and Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn. The men and women of Florida's 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team will demobilize at Fort Stewart, Georgia, and are expected to be released from active duty in time to rejoin their friends and families before Christmas. The 53rd IBCT has a distinguished service history including deployments in support of World War II, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn, among others.
This deployment, officially named "Operation Tomahawk" but unofficially known as "OIF '10" by service-members, was the largest deployment of the Florida Army National Guard since World War II. Although the active duty portion of the mission officially occurred between January 2, 2010 and December 15, 2010, Florida guardsmen conducted multiple annual training periods and extended drill weekends over the course of 2009 to train for the mission and most won't be released from active duty until just prior to Christmas 2010.
The 53rd IBCT ("Gator Brigade") member units include:
- 53rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion (STB)
- 53rd Brigade Support Battalion
- 1st Squadron, 153rd Cavalry Regiment ("The Cav")
- 1st Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment ("Hurricane Battalion")
- 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry Regiment ("Seminole Battalion")
- 2nd Battalion, 116th Field Artillery Regiment ("The FA")
During the OIF '10 deployment, the 53rd IBCT was headquartered at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, with member units stationed elsewhere throughout Kuwait. 1-153 Cav and 2-116 FA conducted force protection missions in Kuwait, ensuring the safety and security of local nationals, American contractors, and military forces residing within or transitioning to and from the theater of operations. 53rd BSB and STB were charged with 'mayor cell' duties on several installations in Kuwait, managing the internal affairs of these military bases and conducting important infrastructure upgrades over the course of the year. 1st and 2nd Battalions, 124th Infantry Regiment, conducted combat convoy escort missions into and throughout Iraq. During the convoy escort operations, many of Florida's guardsmen and women encountered enemy activity including small caliber weapons fire and improvised explosive device detonations. Although many Soldiers were wounded in action (WIA), 53rd IBCT suffered no deaths as a result of enemy contact.
Overall, the 53rd IBCT was an integral part of the most expansive retrograde operation in modern military history, conducting millions of miles of convoy operations and protecting hundreds of thousands of troops, contractors, local nationals, and their equipment. The 53rd IBCT provided security for the Iraqi Campaign draw-down, allowing the ordered movement of American military units from Iraq to Kuwait, and eventually home to the United States.
I had the privilege of serving on this deployment with 2nd Battalion, 124th Infantry (Seminoles!) as a commissioned officer and personally witnessed the sacrifice and heroism of our NCOs and junior enlisted Soldiers. I am so proud of every one of our Soldiers who sacrificed so much both personally and professionally, leaving their homes, civilian jobs, friends and families, to put themselves in harm's way on behalf of their country. Over the past year, these brave Floridians conducted themselves with the honor, dignity, and professionalism expected of American servicemen.
Additionally, on behalf of myself and many of my fellow servicemembers, we give thanks to all of those back home who supported us in our mission and on whose behalf we were given the opportunity to serve. It is especially important to recognize the family members who bravely endured the absence of a loved one for an extended period of time, and all of the many challenges that naturally result. After spending the majority of this past year in the Middle East, it is so very easy to say I LOVE AMERICA! This country, a unique beacon of freedom through time, space and history, is truly the best place in the world to call home. And what a great, amazing feeling to finally be home again!