By Steve Ghiringhelli, Fort Drum Public Affairs Office
American Forces Press Service
FORT DRUM, N.Y. , June 23, 2011 – The day after announcing a drawdown of troops from Afghanistan, President Barack Obama visited Fort Drum to thank members of an Army division that was among the first to deploy units following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"I don't want to give a long speech, because I want to spend most of my time just shaking hands and thanking all of you," Obama told a small gathering of 10th Mountain Division soldiersJune 23, 2011, during his first official visit to Fort Drum.
The soldiers of 1st Brigade Combat Team, which returned earlier this year from its deployment to northern Afghanistan, sat in complete silence as they awaited the commander in chief's arrival at the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade dining facility. It was soldiers from the brigade's 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, who provided a quick reaction force in Afghanistan immediately following 9/11, ultimately helping to overthrow the Taliban-run regime that harbored al-Qaida terrorists.
Once the president was announced, he was introduced to the 150 soldiers by the brigade's commander, Col. Willard "Bill" Burleson.
"Sir, it's a great privilege to share these great soldiers here with you today," Burleson said. "They represent about 4,000 of the first elements of (last year's surge) in Afghanistan."
The president thanked Burleson for his hard work and leadership and then spoke about his decision last year to deploy an additional 30,000 troops into Afghanistan, calling it one of the toughest decisions he has made as president.
"The only reason I was able to make that decision was because I knew that we had the finest fighting force in the world, and that if I gave a command to our troops, they would be able to accomplish that mission," the president said. "The 10th Mountain Division … (were) the first folks to go in after that order was given.
"And that's not surprising," he added, "because you guys were also some of the first folks to go in right after 9/11."
During his televised address to the nation Wednesday night, Obama announced that 10,000 troops will redeploy to the U.S. this year and that a total of 33,000 -- roughly the number of troops sent to Afghanistan last year -- will return by next summer. As Afghan security forces move into the lead, the president said, American troops will continue steadily coming home until 2014, when the U.S. mission completes its transition from combat to support.
He also stated that it was time for America to rethink some of its national security policies, cautioning that the U.S. is in need of some "nation building" of its own.
"Already, this decade of war has caused many to question the nature of America’s engagement around the world," he said during his primetime speech. "Some would have America retreat from our responsibility as an anchor of global security and embrace an isolation that ignores the very real threats that we face. Others would have America over-extended, confronting every evil that can be found abroad.
"We must chart a more centered course," the president noted.
Currently, the 10th Mountain Division's headquarters leads coalition forces in Regional Command - South in Kandahar, Afghanistan. In addition, three of the division's six brigades are deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom -- 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Brigade Combat Team and 10th Combat Aviation Brigade.
It brings the total number of 10th Mountain Division soldiers serving in Afghanistan to more than 10,000.
Meanwhile, the 10th Sustainment Brigade is readying to deploy to Afghanistan this fall.
Obama said his respect for the 10th Mountain Division's storied past goes back to his days at the U.S. Senate.
"I've always run into you guys -- and for some reason, it's always in some rough spots," he said. "You guys have always been there in the toughest fights. The fact that you are continuing, even as we speak, and that many of your comrades are there right now under some very tough circumstances, (demonstrates) your dedication and your patriotism."
In order to sustain their accomplishments so far in the war-torn country, the president assured soldiers that his plan to decrease the number of troops in Afghanistan would not be done "precipitously."
"Because of what you have done, areas like Kandahar are more secure than they have been in years," Obama said. "Because of you, we are now taking the fight to the Taliban, instead of the Taliban bringing the fight to us. Because of you, there are signs that the Taliban may be interested in figuring out political settlements.
"It's also because of you that we have a platform to be able to go after bin Laden and al-Qaida, and we have decimated their ranks," he said.
Obama said even with his planned drawdown, tough work lies ahead.
"The American people understand the sacrifices you are making; they understand the sacrifices that your Families are making," he said. "But there's still some fighting to be done. And frankly, the 10th Mountain Division is still going to be represented there until we have fully transferred to the Afghan military and security forces.
"You guys are the tip of the spear," Obama continued. "You guys are the ones that keep us safe each and every day. For all of the sacrifices you have made, I want to say thank you. For all of the sacrifices your Families have made, I want to say thank you.
"I have no greater job -- nothing gives me more honor -- than serving as your commander in chief. To all of you who are potentially going to be (deployed again), just know that your commander in chief has your back."
Before boarding Air Force One at Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield, Obama met privately inside the Rapid Deployment Facility with family members of fallen soldiers.