November 30, 2015 – KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – The chief of the National Guard Bureau and his senior enlisted advisor agreed there was nowhere they would rather be on Thanksgiving Day than here, serving turkey and fixings to service members.
“Before we came here, one of my sons said, ‘You won’t be with your family on Thanksgiving’,” Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Mitchell Brush said. “I told him, “No, that’s not true – I’ll be with my other family.”
About 700 National Guard members spent Thanksgiving deployed in Afghanistan, and thousands of other service members served here through the holiday. Army Gen. Frank Grass and Brush dished out lunch and dinner in two different parts of the country to members of all military components, civilians, contractors, troops from allied nations and host country citizens.
Grass and Brush insisted on helping serve the long lines of troops that snaked out of the packed chow halls to the gravel outside before they themselves would eat. As seasonal music played, the two donned aprons and set to work alongside other senior leaders, including Ambassador Tatiana Gfoeller, Grass’ foreign policy advisor, assigned from the State Department.
They were continuing what has become a military tradition: senior leaders surprising deployed troops. This startled Army specialists, Marine corporals and Airmen finding a four-star general asking how much turkey they’d like.
The meals highlighted visits to Kabul, Bagram and Kandahar to meet with National Guard and other troops, and it was a toss-up whether the troops or their most senior leaders enjoyed it more.
“Any day out of the Pentagon in the field with our Soldiers and Airmen is a great day,” Brush said.
“I am so impressed every time I come here,” Grass said. “The men and women of the National Guard and the other service members we talk with here, including our international allies, are just doing such extraordinary work. It’s a privilege to be able to thank them, and it was an honor to hopefully make their holiday just a little bit more enjoyable serving food and talking with them today.”
Grass and other senior leaders met with their counterparts here, including Army Gen. John Campbell, commanding general, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, and Army Command Sgt. Maj. Delbert Byers, Campbell’s senior enlisted leader. Guard members are indistinguishable from their active duty counterparts, Campbell told Grass during their office call.
Moving around the country, they visited with Soldiers and Airmen performing missions ranging from perimeter security to countering rocket attacks or performing policing and intelligence functions.
Some of the visits were unscheduled. Upon seeing a contingent of Romanian troops, Grass asked for his vehicle to pull over, bounded out, and talked with them in an impromptu horseshoe formation.
“Romania is one of our key partners in the National Guard State Partnership Program,” he said. “And here they are, fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with us in theater. I wanted to thank them.”
The State Partnership Program builds relationships that endure for decades, and Grass mentioned the names of some of the Romanian military leaders he has come to know personally as he talked with their troops.
Grass and Brush dived into the middle of informal formations of Guard members at each stop, peppering them with questions. How many deployments have they completed? How many domestic missions? How do they feel about the operational tempo?
They got questions in return: How will restructuring by parent services affect Guard members? Will we get more training time? What is the future in Afghanistan?
“Every time I get out – whether it’s at home in the 54 states, territories and the District of Columbia, or overseas – I come away from my visits refreshed, recharged, encouraged by the enthusiasm and professionalism of our members, and heartened by their desire to serve,” Grass said.
Brush exhorted service members to look out for Battle Buddies and Wingmen during the holiday season, noting that while a time of celebration, it can be challenging for some.
He also encouraged the troops to sustain their performance throughout their deployments. “Complacency is the enemy,” he said. “That’s when bad things happen.” He told them to stay in regular contact with family members and friends, to thank the employers who release them for military duty, and to use downtime in theater to work on military and civilian education goals and physical fitness.
“You know General Grass was enlisted, right?” Brush told Guard members at Kandahar, referring to the chief of the National Guard Bureau’s almost 12 years as an enlisted Soldier. “The only reason he went to officer candidate school,” Brush exclaimed jokingly, “is because he couldn’t find a way to get promoted beyond staff sergeant!”
As the assembled Soldiers laughed, Brush said, “But seriously, someone is sitting out there today who could follow a similar path – a future member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The sky is the limit: It’s up to you.”
“Only about 0.6 percent of Americans are serving in uniform today,” Grass said. “Thank you for your service to our nation and our international partners.”