Orders increase 168th’s numbers|[01/14/08]

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 14, 2008

Once slated for deactivation, a Vicksburg-based Army National Guard engineering group has instead been transformed into a larger unit with a slightly different name.

In a Sunday afternoon ceremony at the Vicksburg Readiness Center near Flowers, the 168th Engineer Group was redesignated the 168th Engineer Brigade Headquarters. The change comes with nearly a 50 percent increase in membership for the 168th, which will now have a total of 125 soldiers.

The move will provide more opportunities for members of the unit to move up in the Guard’s ranks and also bring benefits to Vicksburg and Warren County, according to Maj. Gen. Ike Pylant, assistant adjutant general of Mississippi, and Brig. Gen. James Gaston, whose 66th Troop Command encompasses the 168th.

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“You have new life,” Gaston told unit members at Sunday’s ceremony. “You are like the phoenix who has risen from the dust.”

Pylant said the move “is good for this community. It will bring more people to Vicksburg and Warren County. It will help the tourism industry, and I dare say that it might help the gaming industry just a little bit, too.”

In addition to its fresh name and responsibilities, the 168th has also received a new commander, Col. Johnny Sellers, who officially took over from Col. Larry Harrington in Sunday’s ceremony.

The latter officer’s 40-month tenure saw the 168th come to the aid of Mississippi communities devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In his departing remarks on Sunday, Harrington marvelled that Guardsmen whose homes were hit by the storm nevertheless showed up for duty.

“They were in formation the next morning” after the hurricane hit, he said.

Harrington himself won praise at Sunday’s ceremony for his role in keeping the 168th intact after a National Guard reorganization plan called for it to be deactivated.

Harrington and Pylant “stayed on the phone for countless days” with Guard officials in Washington to “nail down” a deal converting the 168th Engineering Group into the brigade announced on Sunday, according to Gaston.

A statement released last week by the Mississippi Guard said that the 168th received its redesignation due to its “readiness and performance levels.”

The 168th grew out of predecessor units founded in Vicksburg in the 1930s. About half its members are from Warren County and the surrounding area, and half are from other parts of the state.

In peacetime, the 168th has under its command more than 1,000 members of two reserve battalions headquartered in West Point, Miss., and Gulfport.

During times of war, it can be called upon to provide engineering support services. Deployed in Iraq from 2003 to 2004, for instance, it managed construction projects that included rebuilding of five schools and turning a former headquarters of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party into a medical clinic.

The 168th recently received a heads-up notice to train for a possible future deployment in connection with the war on terrorism.