SINAI PENINSULA, Egypt, May 25, 2017 — A recent ceremony in which a Minnesota National Guard infantry battalion handed over responsibility for the Multinational Force and Observers mission here to an incoming Massachusetts National Guard infantry battalion might have been a newsworthy event 16 years ago — today, the extraordinary has become routine. In the 16 years since the 9/11 attacks — through innumerable missions fighting America’s wars, securing the homeland and strengthening domestic and international partnerships essential to national security — the National Guard transformed from a strategic reserve to an operational force.
An Operational Force
The Minnesota National Guard unit, the 2nd Battalion, 135th Infantry Regiment was the multinational force’s lead military contingent. The Massachusetts National Guard unit, the 1st Battalion, 181st Infantry Regiment assumed the same role. As more than 200 Minnesota Guard members prepared to rejoin families, reintegrate into communities, return to civilian employers and ready themselves to answer the next call to duty, more than 200 Massachusetts Guard members hung up firefighter, state trooper or paramedic uniforms, set down the tools of a trade or stepped away from computer keyboards to take their place.
They bade farewell to families and friends, put college on hold, took leaves of absence from work and headed to a country almost none had visited before to help keep a historic peace that has held more than 38 years, a challenging assignment in a dynamic security environment. That the Sept. 11 attacks happened in 2001 and — among many other domestic and overseas missions — the National Guard started supporting the MFO mission in 2002 isn’t unrelated. Demands on U.S. military forces grew in the wake of the attacks, and the National Guard stepped up not only to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but also to ensure continuity of other longstanding overseas operations, such as peacekeeping in the Balkans and the Horn of Africa or supporting the 1979 treaty between Egypt and Israel.
Multinational Force, Observers Mission in Egypt
“More than 15,000 Guard members have served with the Multinational Force and Observers since 2002,” said Air Force Gen. Joseph L. Lengyel, the chief of the National Guard Bureau. Lengyel visited with the Minnesota and Massachusetts units here as part of a trip to Egypt which also included meetings with Egyptian leaders, during which the MFO was only one of multiple topics in conversations about the longstanding, wide-ranging security cooperation between the Arab Republic of Egypt and the United States — and about possible innovations in how the National Guard might contribute to the relationship in the future.
Lengyel returned to the country where he once served as the United States’ senior military representative, an assignment the general views as a career highlight, in part because it enriched his understanding of the complexity of geopolitical issues and the interdependence of America’s relationships with allies and partners, further preparing him for his current position as the Guard Bureau’s chief.
The role Lengyel filled during his visit is another example of the extraordinary becoming routine: In the early years of the National Guard’s support to the MFO, visiting NGB chiefs wore three stars and primarily represented the Guard. The contributions of National Guard soldiers and airmen at home and around the world after 9/11 changed that: In 2008, the Bureau’s chief added a fourth star, and in 2012 the position was elevated to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Lengyel returned to Egypt both in his capacity as the National Guard’s most-senior general and as a military advisor to the secretary of defense and the president.
Strong U.S.-Egypt Defense Relationship
“The primary purpose of my visit is to convey the Department of Defense’s and the National Guard’s support for the strong defense relationship with Egypt as an important strategic partner in helping advance security and stability in the Middle East, and to visit National Guard soldiers serving on the Sinai Peninsula,” he said.
Among those accompanying Lengyel was Army Command Sgt. Maj. Christopher Kepner, the command sergeant major of the Army National Guard, acting as Lengyel’s senior enlisted advisor. Kepner represented the enlisted force in Lengyel’s meetings with Egyptian leaders and during the Sinai visit, his presence demonstrating to the host nation the advantages of a professional noncommissioned officer corps.
“Our Egyptian counterparts got to see our command team philosophy firsthand — the value that our leadership at the highest levels places on the advice and counsel of the NCO corps, which is a significant part of the secret to our military success,” Kepner said. “Engaging our citizen-soldiers in the Sinai demonstrates that we support them and gives them a chance to provide their insights on their mobilization experience. Their concerns are invaluable: They help us shape our future.”
Lengyel’s itinerary included meetings with U.S. Ambassador R. Stephen Beecroft and with senior Egyptian leaders, including Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Sedky Subhi; Lt. Gen. Mahmoud al-Hijazi, Egyptian armed forces chief of staff; Air Marshal Younes Hamed al Masri, Egyptian air force commander; Maj. Gen. Abdel Mordy, chief, Egypt Armed Forces Logistics Authority; Brig. Gen. Mohammed Keshkesh, commander, Egypt Air Force Search and Rescue Center; and Brig. Gen. Mohammed El-Desouky, commander, Egypt Armed Forces Quick Response and Rescue Unit.
Possible Future Cooperation Engagements
Discussions included possible future National Guard cooperation engagements centered on quick response and search and rescue capabilities — engagements that could further the interoperability of U.S. and Egyptian forces and develop both Guard members’ skills and those of their Egyptian hosts. Other topics included the security situation in Egypt and terrorist threats, such as that posed by ISIS on the Sinai Peninsula.
“The National Guard is engaged worldwide in supporting the Joint Force and the USA’s national security priorities,” Lengyel said. “Missions such as our support to the MFO keep our soldiers and airmen ready, effective and operational.”
Army Sgt. Kathryn Moonen put her environmental engineering studies on hold to take up the duties of a MFO medic in a Middle Eastern desert.
“I knew this was a well-established deployment,” she said. “We came in here with the mindset to make it that much better.”
The Minnesotan citizen-warriors knew their unfamiliarity with the mission and the environment held a potentially innovative advantage — fresh eyes.
“People get in a mindset, ‘Oh, it’s been this way for 30 years,’” Moonen said. “The Minnesotans sought ways to enhance the mission. The Massachusetts troops replacing them say they’re bringing the same attitude: How can we contribute to continuous improvement?”
Moonen returns to Minnesota changed by her first overseas deployment.
During her time in the Sinai Desert, Moonen rotated through remote sites where small units of soldiers observe and report activity in support of Egypt and Israel’s treaty.
She spent a full 28-day rotation sharing quarters in the austere environment of Tiran Island, where soldiers are the only residents on a windblown, sandy rock, periodically resupplied by the MFO’s UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. Moonen helped teach cardiopulmonary resuscitation to about 100 of the Fijian troops also supporting the MFO. With MFO firefighters, she helped troops become certified as combat lifesavers. She contributed to significantly upgrading the MFO’s medical capabilities, ordering mannequins and other equipment for training and medical care. She took part in evacuation exercises and air assault school tryouts.
National Guard Service
She also took a one-month break to attend the Basic Leadership Course required of Army noncommissioned officers. The course was offered by Army National Guard troops stationed in Kuwait; Moonen graduated on the commandant’s list.
Moonen is 24 years old. She knows her National Guard service makes her different from many of the students she’s rejoining in school, and she returns seeing opportunity in that difference — the chance to share her experience and perspective with her contemporaries.
She said her military service is possible because of her family and friends.
“My support system is great,” Moonen said. Like many Guard members, she’s continuing a family tradition: her father served in the Army, a brother is a Marine, and a second brother is training to become an Army officer in ROTC.
The 9/11 attacks accelerated a transformation already underway in the Guard. While it’s convenient to assign credit for change to one event, reality is more complex. Other seismic events had already set in motion dramatic change across the force. Two examples: The Air National Guard has continuously flown sorties ever since the 1991 Gulf War.
Guard Security Cooperation Contributions
And the National Guard was honing its contributions to the United States’ foreign security cooperation relationships long before 9/11, at least since the 1993 establishment of its State Partnership Program following the collapse of the Soviet bloc — and even before that, with wide-ranging engagements while building roads and other infrastructure in Central America in the 1980s.
“I hope these citizen warriors recognize what they’re accomplishing and take pride in their service,” Lengyel said as he departed the Sinai Peninsula to return to Washington. “They are taking the foundation built by hundreds of thousands of Guard members who served before them to a whole new level. It’s absolutely extraordinary what Guard members do every day at home and around the world.
“We are force providers to the Army and the Air Force,” he continued, “and we are also a unique force that, through the civilian-acquired skills we bring to our military service, and through our unique role in the states and territories, among other things, contribute to the joint force in ways that should make every individual Guard member walk just a little taller and be justifiably proud of contributing to this exceptional organization and our national security.”