Milan-based battalion mobilizes for peacekeeping mission in Egypt

Mike Chrisman

Thousands of Illinois Army National Guard Soldiers have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 and now approximately 440 Soldiers are preparing to take on a mission unlike any other Illinois National Guard unit has done this decade. Members of 2nd Battalion, 123rd Field Artillery Regiment have been mobilized for an international peacekeeping mission in Egypt.

Thousands of family and friends gathered at the I Wireless Center in Moline May 22 to say goodbye to their Soldiers as the 123rd prepared to deploy to Sinai this summer. 

“This is an exciting mission,” said Lt. Col. Maurice Rochelle of Flossmoor, 123rd commander. “Our Soldiers are always training for the next mission and for the last nine years the next mission usually means Kuwait, Iraq or Afghanistan. Now we have a chance to, not only represent Illinois, but our nation as part of this mission.”

The Milan-based battalion will be part of Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), a peacekeeping force overseeing the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

“Our mission is to observe, report and verify treaty compliance between Egypt and Israel,” said Rochelle, a 27-year veteran of the Illinois National Guard who will deploy for the first time. “Our Soldiers will perform the duties of observation and reporting at outposts, while patrolling and during base defense.” 

The unit is comprised of Forward Support Company, 2nd Battalion, 123rd Field Artillery in Milan; Headquarters, 2nd Battalion, 123rd Field Artillery in Milan; Battery A, 2nd Battalion, 123rd Field Artillery in Milan; Battery B, 2nd Battalion, 123rd Field Artillery in Macomb and Battery C, 2nd Battalion, 123rd Field Artillery in Galesburg. 

This is the first time the battalion will deploy as a single unit. While the mobilization includes units from northwest Illinois, Soldiers from all areas of Illinois are part of this deployment.

“This is a great opportunity for our battalion and the Soldiers of the Illinois Army National Guard,” Rochelle said. “This unique opportunity is something many Soldiers are looking forward to and a chance for the Illinois National Guard to help keep peace in a historic region.” 

The multinational force was created following the 1978 Camp David peace accords, creating an agreement between two former enemies in 1979. When the United Nations failed to provide a peace force to enforce the agreement, the MFO was established as an alternative in 1981. This peacekeeping force included nearly a dozen foreign countries.  

The unit will be part of a task force comprised of several other countries and National Guard units from Puerto Rico and Oklahoma. Others that are part of the MFO include two infantry battalions from the Republic of Fiji and Colombia, and Soldiers from Italy, Uruguay, France, Czech Republic, Hungary, Canada, Australia, Norway, New Zealand and Finland.

 “After deploying it’s expected our battalion will be split into smaller groups to provide force protection to observers in the Sinai and along the Straits of Tiran,” Rochelle said. “For the most part we do expect to maintain unit integrity throughout the mission.”

The mobilization has instilled a sense of pride in many Soldiers with the 123rd who know they are part of something special.

“I got back into the military to do my part for America and it’s an honor to be part of this,” said Sgt. Bill Sadlick of Naperville, a member of Battery A, 2nd Battalion, 123rd Field Artillery in Milan.

He enlisted in the Illinois Army National Guard in 2002 after serving three years in the active duty Army before getting out of the military in 1988. 

“I am especially happy for the Soldiers that have deployed two or three times,” said Sadlick. “Unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, this mission offers totally different opportunities and experiences. I am proud to be part of a great group of Soldiers who are dedicated to what they are doing.”

Approximately 65 percent of the Soldiers being mobilized have already deployed as part of operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom. Aproximately 170 Soldiers volunteered for this deployment.

The battalion also includes 23 Soldiers from the Springfield-based 233rd Military Police Company which had its mission to Iraq cancelled this spring.

 “I volunteered for this mission for many reasons,” said Sgt. Aleah Castrejon of Minonk, one of the 22 females deploying with the 123rd. “When our mission with the 233rd was cancelled I saw this as the perfect 

opportunity to deploy. I am excited to get to see another side of the world and be part of such a unique mission.”

This will be Castrejon’s second deployment in her six-year military career.  She deployed to Iraq in 2006-2007. She said changing the focus from Iraq to Egypt was a great advantage of volunteering for the MFO. 

 “Over the last year my old unit was training to go to Iraq and my thought process was that we are going to war,” Castrejon said. “To completely change that mindset and go on a peacekeeping mission is a blessing. I am ecstatic to be part of this rare opportunity.”

The deployment is also the first time away from family for some Soldiers.  1st Lt. Valerie Hollenback of Ipava has been in the military for 13 years and this is her first deployment away from her husband and two kids, ages 8 and 1.

“I feel sad because my family depends on me a lot,” Hollenback said. “I will not be there to help my son with his homework or see my 1-year old daughter as she starts to do cute things. I am happy though, to be part of this mission deploying to a foreign land with a rich history and a chance to be part of that history.”

The distinctive mission sparked interest in many Soldiers who recently returned from deployment in Afghanistan with the 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT). That historic deployment saw nearly 3,000 of the Illinois National Guard’s 10,000 Soldiers deploy from May 2008 to October 2009. 

“I volunteered because my mission in Afghanistan was observing and reporting enemy activity, which is very similar to this mission," said Sgt. Todd Gustafson of Rock Island, a member of the 33rd IBCT who returned from Afghanistan in September. “I think I can share some of my knowledge with these young Soldiers and help during this deployment.”

Gustafson is one of 17 Soldiers who deployed with the 33rd and jumped at the opportunity to be part of this mission.

“I am excited and cannot wait,” he added. “I know a lot of young Soldiers are nervous about leaving home for the first time, but this will be an experience none of us will forget.” 

The 123rd will spend the next 45 days training in Fort Lewis, Wash. before deploying to Sinai for approximately 10 months. 

 “Soldiers seem to accept this mission because of the change in the type of mission,” Rochelle said. “They are excited about the interesting cultures and the opportunity to explore the historical regions.  This mission does not have the immediate tensions of Iraq or Afghanistan, but we must remain focused and attentive in order to accomplish our mission. Our goal is to accomplish the mission and come home next May and know that we made Illinois and the United States proud.”