168th group leaves tonight: It’s just time to go do it’

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 13, 2003

Col. Chip Klein, left, and Capt. Brian Herrington, right, prepare duffel bags Wednesday at the 168th Engineer Group Headquarters on Army-Navy Drive. The group was activated Monday and will be on its way to Fort Stewart, Ga., tonight.(C. Todd ShermanThe Vicksburg Post)

Mississippi’s only Army National Guard engineer group leaves tonight from its Vicksburg headquarters for its first full active-duty deployment, and with no destination announced.

The entire 168th Engineer Group, about 80 people, was called up Monday as part of a presidential partial mobilization of reserve forces in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, America’s war on terrorism.

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“We’re packing up and loading out,” Sgt. Maj. George Meisenholder of Vicksburg said, adding that the citizen-soldiers will travel first to Fort Stewart, Ga., then “overseas.”

The soldiers are expected to remain on active duty for about one year, though reservists can be activated for up to two years at a time. They were on alert for 10 days before the call-up came, Meisenholder said.

This week U.S. armed forces announced an increase in reservists called to active duty of 38,649, including about 2,100 from Mississippi.

About 50 other reservists from a Vicksburg-based unit, the 114th Military Police Company, have also been deployed in the past two weeks, bringing the local total to about 130.

The 168th’s mission is to manage construction projects, Meisenholder said. The group itself has no construction capability, but the units it commands do, he explained.

About half the group’s members are from Warren County and the surrounding area, and half are from other parts of the state, he added.

Included among the group’s members are 11 full-time headquarters staff. Several of the reservists hold civilian posts as engineers, Meisenholder said. At least one each is also a teacher, firefighter, attorney, law-enforcement officer and parcel-service worker.

In peacetime, the 168th has under its command about 1,300 members in two reserve battalions, headquartered in West Point and Gulfport, Meisenholder said. He added that he did not know what units might be placed under the 168th’s control during its upcoming deployment.

“We can build anything from base camps to roads to airports to smaller facilities,” said the group’s second-in-command, Col. Chip Klein of Gulfport. “Our peacetime mission is normally to build something for a third-world country.” Such projects have included schools and medical clinics, he added.

The group’s commander, Col. Ken Rigby, has gone ahead of his soldiers to the mobilization station, Klein said Wednesday morning.

On Wednesday morning at the armory, Spc. Linda Jones of Vicksburg was planning to drive out to Vicksburg Intermediate School to tell her sixth-grade English students goodby. Her job with the 168th is in personnel administration.

“They’re probably curious, and a little worried,” she said. “I’m going to tell them to be good for whoever is their substitute, and good luck,” Jones said. Before she returns, they will have moved on to the seventh-grade and a different school.

“Vehicles have been loaded and shipped to the mobilization station,” Meisenholder said. “Everything is basically done.”

A letter on display at the armory shows predecessor units of the 168th were established beginning in 1934. Engineers from one participated in World War II campaigns in New Guinea and the Southern Philippines, it says.

Though members of the group have been deployed in recent years to Korea, Japan, Jordan, Italy, Germany, Jamaica, Honduras and Panama, the entire unit has never been sent outside the United States, Meisenholder said.

“I’ve been training for this all my life,” said warrant officer Thomas P. Phillips of Hattiesburg, a 35-year guard member who served in the 1991 Persian Gulf war and works full-time with Army vehicle maintenance at Camp Shelby. “It’s just time to go do it.”