Ten Years Ago Today...

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On March 20, 2003 -- ten years ago today --  the ground invasion of Iraq began.

National Guard troops were a crucial part of the initial invasion, and by the time U.S. troops were withdrawn in December 2011, more than 286,000 Army and Air Guardsmen had served in Iraq. The Guard’s crucial contributions to Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) stand as an example of the success of the Total Force Policy, implemented following the Vietnam War to ensure the adequate preparation and participation of reserve components in any future conflicts.  A number of firsts, many of which are highlighted in the museum’s 9/11 Era Gallery, characterize the Guard’s contributions to OIF.

For the first time in history, a Guard division—the 42nd Infantry “Rainbow” Division—commanded active Army brigades in a combat zone in 2005. This milestone added to the Rainbow Division’s already storied history, which began during World War I when units from 26 different states were pulled together (“like a rainbow,” according to Gen. Douglas MacArthur) for deployment to France. While in Iraq, soldiers in the 42nd conducted combat operations, trained Iraqi soldiers and participated in the reconstruction effort.

Another first involved the National Guard’s only Stryker brigade, the 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team (SBCT) of the 28th Division, Pennsylvania National Guard. The first reserve component SBCT began training for OIF in 2008. The 56th performed over 800 operations with Iraqi security forces in 2009 before returning home.

Finally, Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, who was assigned to the Kentucky Guard’s 617th Military Police Company, became the first female soldier in the U.S. Army to receive the Silver Star for exceptional valor since World War II, and the first ever to be cited for valor in close quarters combat.  She received the award after defending a convoy that insurgents attack in March 2005.  Her squad leader from the 617th, Staff Sgt. Timothy Nein, received the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism during the same incident.  Sgt. Hester’s blouse is on display in the 9/11 Era Gallery.

On this tenth anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom, it is important to reflect on the significance of the Guard’s role in the operation, as well as on the sacrifices made by those who have served.

Amelia Meyer is the archivist for the National Guard Educational Foundation

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