168th engineers get a new commander

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 22, 2010

Back just three months from troop and humanitarian support in Afghanistan, the 168th Engineer Brigade of the Mississippi National Guard welcomed a new commander Saturday.

Under bright skies and with warm breezes ruffling national, state and brigade flags, Col. Johnny M. Sellers, a native of Purvis, took over from outgoing commander Brig. Gen. Earnest L. Harrington Jr.

Sellers, addressing assembled family members, guests and battalion members at the unit’s headquarters off Interstate 20 in Flowers, said he had mixed feelings aboutseeing Harrington go but still spoke with a big smile and plenty of energy.

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“This organization has a proud history,” Sellers said of the 168th, which dates to 1934. “We will carry the torch forward whether in peace or in war. Essayons — engineers lead the way.”

“Essayons,” the motto of American engineers, is French for “let us try.” Under Harrington, the 168th deployed to Afghanistan in December 2008 and returned in November.

“They did a tremendous job over there,” Harrington said, citing more than 230 Purple Heart medals given to 168th guardsmen who suffered injuries locating and disabling IEDs — improvised explosive devices — and land mines during their recent deployment.

The 168th also constructed combat and forward operations posts, setting up perimeters and temporary buildings, establishing water supplies and other basic needs in an area near the Pakistan border about the size of South Carolina, he said, and trained Afghan nationals in various engineering skills.

Sellers, who was Harrington’s deputy commander in Afghanistan, said he would initially focus on reestablishing working relationships with the brigade’s two subordinate battalions, the 223rd, out of West Point, and the 890th, based in Gulfport, as the 168th reverts to state control.

“General Larry Harrington did an outstanding job as 168th commander over the past four and a half years,” said Maj. Gen. William Freeman, MNG adjutant general. “He took the troops to Afghanistan and performed admirably in that theater. To the new commander, Johnny Sellers, who has been a company commander, a battalion commander and now a brigade commander, I know he’s prepared himself well for this assignment.”

“He’s very open, very fair,” said brigade chaplain Lt. Col. Donald Malin. “Above all, he cares about the welfare of the unit — making sure they’re safe and doing their jobs in a safe manner.”

In civilian life Sellers is owner and manager of Sellers Chevrolet in Purvis. He is married to the former Robin E. New, and has three sons, Michael, 25, Justin, 21, a Guardsman with the 168th, and Jack, 4. He is a member of the VFW Post 3036 and Sons of the Confederate Veterans, and a chapter chairman with the Boy Scouts of America.

When not deployed in active federal service, the 168th serves a number of state missions including hurricane relief and assisting local communities with quality-of-life projects such as creating softball fields, adopt-a-highway programs and drug-awareness education.

Harrington, who was given the Distinguished Service Medal by Freeman, leaves to become assistant adjutant general at the state National Guard office in Jackson.

Contact Pamela Hitchins at phitchins@vicksburgpost.com