CAPITAL REGION -- During a short speech Saturday, Maj. Gen. Raymond Shields outlined some of the increased risks facing 24 members of the Latham-based New York National Guard 206th Military Police Company as they prepare for deployment to Afghanistan.
Shields, the 54th adjutant general for the state and the commander of the New York Army National Guard, spoke at a farewell ceremony for the soldiers and their families held at New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs Headquarters on Old Niskayuna Road. The unit's job will be to provide security for a U.S. military general.
"The thing I want to talk to you all about, more than anything, is complacency," Shields told the soldiers. "If you've watched what's gone on in the news the last couple of days you've seen that the world is a more dangerous place, probably, because of some actions that have been taken in the Middle East."
President Donald Trump's decision to order a drone strike that killed high-ranking Iranian Revolutionary Guard Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani early Friday loomed over the farewell ceremony. American officials considered Soleimani responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans during the Iraq War and hostile Iranian activities throughout the Middle East. The Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's leader, has vowed to exact vengeance for Soleimani's death.
Shields told the soldiers to remember the danger they face.
For many, the drone strike also has sparked heightened fears of a larger military conflict with Iran. A war protest was held in Saratoga Springs Saturday in front of the post office a few hours before the deployment ceremony in Latham.
Lale Davidson, the chairwoman of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Saratoga Springs, was among the group of about a dozen protesters who held up signs condemning war.
"War is stupid, and I think Trump is incompetent, insane and immoral — the last thing we need is a war right now," she said. "The country is in dire straits, and, if we allow ourselves to be dragged into a war, I don't think there's any coming back."
The Trump administration has given the opposite view. Rather than starting a war, it said, it was trying to prevent one by eliminating someone who was sowing the seeds of war.
Gen. Shields' message to the soldiers included telling them to be cautious about the possibility that recent violence in Iraq and Iran could spread to Afghanistan.
"The Iranians are clearly going to be looking for ways to get back at the United States, so ... do not become complacent while you are deployed in Afghanistan," he said. "Every day, every mission, everything that you do, you have to keep in the back of your mind that you are in a war zone. You are in a dangerous place. If you become complacent, you're likely to become injured, or possibly killed."
The soldiers of the 206th are set to depart for mobilization at Fort Bliss, Texas on Jan. 9. They then will receive three weeks of special training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri before going to Afghanistan, where they will spend about 10 months. They are expected to return by the end of 2020.
Members of the media were invited to watch the farewell ceremony. Shields offered a candid glimpse of the pressures facing deployed soldiers. He told them to guard against both enemy combatants and from a lack of discipline from within the unit.
"The last thing I want to leave you with, is watching out for each other — you have two female soldiers with you — the last thing we need is any kind of sexual assault or sexual harassment by any of us in the organization, or anyone else that you're dealing with," he said. "You're going to be dealing with people from different cultures, who do things differently, but you all need to make sure that you're watching what's going on. You know right from wrong, if you see something that doesn't seem right you need to step in and stop it."
Montgomery County Clerk Brittany Kolbe attended the farewell ceremony Saturday for her husband, Stephen Kolbe, a Gloversville police officer, who is set to deploy with the unit. Their young son Mason was also in attendance. Brittany Kolbe said she's lived with the sacrifices family members must make during periods of military deployment her entire life since both of her parents were in the military.
"It means a lot to me, what he's doing," she said. "He was deployed to Iraq in 2009, so this will be his second deployment overseas."
Brittany Kolbe said the killing of Soleimani put her on guard.
"Of course, the worst case scenario goes through your head, but I know that my husband is an amazing soldier and he'll do everything he can to come home to us," she said.
Greenfield resident Jay Yurcik, a Vietnam War veteran and a member of Veterans for Peace, attended the anti-war rally in Saratoga Springs Saturday. He said he resents that President Trump received Vietnam War draft deferments for bone spurs but now might lead the U.S. into war with Iran.
"He can't deal with the issues he has, so this is a great distraction for him," he said. "Unfortunately it may work; people usually support the commander-in-chief when there's a war. I'm not optimistic."
Yurcik, who is retired after a career working for General Electric, said he laments the increased U.S. military interventions since President George H.W. Bush invaded Iraq in 1990.
"When Bush Sr. took over, he said he was going to end the Vietnam Syndrome, and unfortunately this country runs on war," he said. "We need to make peace profitable, rather than war."
One common thread among the protesters Saturday was the belief that Trump's decision to kill Soleimani was politically self-serving and hypocritical given past statements.
Linda LeTendre, along with the Saratoga Peace Alliance, helped organize the protest. She pointed to statements Trump made during a television interview in 2011, and tweets from 2012, in which Trump said he believed former President Obama would attack Iran to bolster his re-election chances.
"I believe he will attack Iran, sometime prior to the election, because he believes that is the only way he can get elected — isn't it pathetic?" Trump said in the video, which has circulated throughout social media since the drone strike.
LeTendre said she believes Trump's past statements show he likely has political motivations now.
"He's doing what he predicted Obama would do to get his poll numbers up," she said. "This is just to distract from the impeachment process. We're protesting out of fear of future war. We're very concerned about a cyber attack that could cripple the country's electricity system or be able to travel."
Enthusiasm for deployment
Sgt. Nick Scialdone, of the 206th Military Police, said he couldn't comment on what the impact of the drone strike in Iran might have on his deployment in Afghanistan, but he said he is happy to go on the mission.
"I'm excited. I like going to new places, experiencing different cultures, meeting all new people," Scialdone said.
He said he was deployed to Iraq in 2009 and he enjoyed the mission.
"It was fantastic," Scialdone said. "I was a lower rank, so there was a lot less responsibility. I really enjoyed it. I made a lot of good friends," he said.
Casey McCarthy from Long Island attended the farewell ceremony Saturday for her boyfriend Bryan Chaffee, a member of the 206th and a police officer in Binghamton, where she attends college. She said this will be Chaffee's first deployment. She said they discussed the potential implications of rising tensions with Iran after the killing of Soleimani while the two listened to a podcast during the car ride from Binghamton to Latham Saturday.
"I'm happy for him, this is what he wanted," McCarthy said. "He signed up to do this, and he told me 'Look, this is why I joined, so I can go and make a difference,'" she said. "As much as I'm sad that he's leaving, I'm happy that he's proud of what he's doing. It's nerve wracking that he's going amidst high tensions, but I'm hoping that he hopefully avoids most of the hard stuff."