National Guard#039;s 216th coming home next month

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 14, 2005

Even through e-mail, Lt. Col. Scott Evans gushes like a proud father when he talks about the soldiers of the Ohio Army National Guard's 216th Engineer Battalion.

Soon he will be able to tell all of southern Ohio how he feels about the soldiers under his command without the thousands of miles between him and his home - the 216th is coming home sometime next month.

The Portsmouth-based Detachment 1 and its subgroup Company B from Ironton was deployed to Tikrit, Iraq in February to provide assistance to the 1st Infantry Division.

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"We are tremendously looking forward to our homecoming. A year is an extremely long time for anyone to be away from their homes and families," Evans said via e-mail. "There is a visible increase in overall morale now that we have rounded the final turn toward the finish line."

Detachment 1, Company B consists of carpenters, plumbers, electricians and heavy equipment operators who are assisting in humanitarian efforts that include building bridges, roads, buildings and other support.

The unit consists of 36 local soldiers who are based in Ironton.

The soldiers of the 216th were extended slightly in their stay but that has not delayed their homecoming, only shortened the amount of time they will spend in Kuwait before returning.

Evans' unit and others were extended "to maintain the continuity of engineer support within (the) area of operations, a 3,500 square mile area approximately the size of West Virginia.

"If all goes well, we will see home again before the end of February. I told the people of Lawrence County before our departure that they should be very proud of our soldiers because they would serve with distinction," Evans said.

"They have exceeded my expectations while simultaneously impressing the leadership of what is not only a regular army division but the oldest and most decorated division in the entire United States Army. I am sure that Lawrence County must be equally proud of them."

After a year in the trenches, Evans' superiors sure are proud.

"LTC Scott Evans is a consummate professional and is clearly one of the finest battalion commanders I have known in 28 years of service. His technical and tactical expertise coupled with charismatic leadership style honed his unit into an exemplary Combat Engineer Battalion in support of the 1st Infantry Division," Brigadier General (BG) Stephen Mundt, assistant division commander, wrote in a performance evaluation.

"His efforts and those of his unit have touched everyone in this Division and their strong work ethic earned my respect and the nickname 'The Workhorse of the Division,'" he wrote.

True to character, Evans quickly defers all praise back to the soldiers.

"What matters is not the rating I received, but BG Mundt's observations of the battalion as a whole," Evans said via e-mail. "There are few better indicators of a military unit's actual performance than the evaluation given to the commanding officer."

The unit has been nominated for a Meritorious Unit Commendation, a highly prestigious unit award that "can only be earned by a military organization whose performance is clearly superior to other units of the same type conducting similar operations," Evans said.

"Obviously, we are extremely honored just to receive such a nomination. If it is awarded, we will be the first battalion from the Ohio Army National Guard to receive such a distinction since World War II over 60 years ago," he said. "… Our soldiers make this recognition possible. I am truly honored to serve with them."

But the tour of duty has not been without challenges, heartache and loss. The 216th had three soldier killed in action and more than 15 injured, Evans said.

"There have been enormous challenges, some of which made operating in a 125-degree desert seem trivial. I have never experienced anything in my life comparable to the pain of losing a soldier under my command in combat," Evans said. "It is an experience that will be etched in my soul forever. All three of our soldiers killed were true American patriots with tremendous futures ahead of them. I will never forget them nor will their fellow unit members.

"Yet our mission had to go on and with each loss we renewed our determination to complete this task successfully as a tribute to their ultimate sacrifice."

Through it all, the soldiers of the 216th have earned more than 20 Bronze Star nominations (four for valor), more than

15 Purple Heart medals for wounds received in action and numerous Army Commendation Medals.

Soon, they will earn the prize many long for - a family reunion.