Champion has ‘no qualms’ about his return to Afghanistan

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 9, 2004

A willing warrior, intensely patriotic, U.S. Army National Guard Brig. Gen. Greg Champion is preparing for a second tour of duty in Afghanistan, this time as a deputy commander of all forces there.

Champion, visiting his mother, Sarah Champion, in Natchez last week, took time to talk about the military mission in the Middle East and the professionalism of young soldiers in those far-flung parts of the world.

He talked about the reserve components of the military and how they have performed on active duty. He talked of their families and employers whose generosity has been tested by calls to active duty of many soldiers not just once but twice and even three times to serve in Afghanistan or Iraq.

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Telling people about all the young soldiers, regular and reserve, serving in the Middle East today is his passion, Champion said. &uot;What they’re able to do is just incredible. I don’t think people in this country realize how good these soldiers are,&uot; he said.

And he has a message for the families of the soldiers. &uot;I can tell their families that what we are doing is right. I can tell them their family members in the services are unbelievable; they are doing great work. I can tell them we’re going to prevail, and our country is going to be much more secure because of our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.&uot;

He also talked about his own career and how his latest assignment is the culmination of more than 26 years of training and experience

Many &uot;firsts&uot; punctuate Champion’s military resume, not the least of which was the call of the 20th Special Forces Group, of which he was commander, to go to Afghanistan in 2002.

&uot;This was the first mobilization of reserve component combat forces of this level since the Korean War,&uot; he said. &uot;And it was the first time a commander had been given control of operations like this that included Coalition Special Forces as well as U.S.&uot;

Changing roles for reserve units

Years before the mobilization of his Guard Special Forces group to Afghanistan, the U.S. military had begun to shrink. The Cold War had ended, and reserve units such as his

took on greater importance, becoming part of the worldwide force, Champion said. Still, no one could have known what lay ahead for reserve units before the events of Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked Americans on their own soil.

&uot;Everything changed for our group from that point,&uot; he said. &uot;I knew special forces would be involved. But I didn’t know how fast it would happen.&uot;

The 5th Special Forces Group, one of the five full-time active Army groups, was the first on the ground in Afghanistan.

&uot;They did all the linkups, they met with all the warlords. They were on the ground pretty quick,&uot; Champion said.

&uot;Someone had to step into the void they left, and I was able to convince (the military leadership) the 20th Group could do it.&uot;

Training had begun by then for all special forces troops throughout the country and the world. &uot;It was a big deal. Once we started that exercise, it became important to us that we would be ready if we were called up. In the late fall 2001, I was told the 20th was going to Afghanistan.&uot;

The missions in Afghanistan

The country and its people touched his heart on that first assignment to Afghanistan. &uot;You cannot describe what the place is like. It’s like two different countries, with the northern two-thirds extremely mountainous and the southern part just pure desert,&uot; he said. &uot;Temperature extremes are up to 115 to 118 degrees in the desert and extremely cold in the mountains.&uot;

Ravaged by years of wars and tyrannical rule, the country was desolate. &uot;You saw a country that had absolutely no infrastructure. I was very sympathetic to the Afghan people because of the conditions they had to live in, whether in peace or in war.&uot;

The election held in October to choose a president of Afghanistan was a significant turning point for the people. &uot;To be able to carry that off without any interruption put a dagger in the heart of the Taliban and all other insurgents that don’t want Afghanistan to be set up like a democracy,&uot; Champion said. &uot;The Afghan people walked to all those polling stations knowing their chances of getting killed were fairly significant. Some waited for days to cast their votes. They now have ownership in a process. But that’s just the first step. Next will be parliamentary and local elections.&uot;

Being there to help the Afghan people is precisely the right thing for American and Coalition forces to be doing, he said. And he is eager to return. &uot;Once you’ve been there and you’ve started a job and it’s not finished, you want to go back,&uot; he said. &uot;I have no qualms at all about going back for a second time.&uot;

He sees an end to U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, however, and said the overall goal is to finish the job and leave. &uot;The big deal now is to get Afghanistan on its feet so we can get out or there.&uot;

Beyond the Taliban, al Qaida

The first mission was to kill or capture members of the Taliban and al Quaida. &uot;But once we put the teams out in the field, you saw what special forces could do, working with the Afghan people, making their life a little better and giving them a sense of security. And then we began to train the Afghan army and to conduct other combat operations.&uot;

Special forces worked diligently to keep peace in the countryside and to assist in making tangible improvements, Champion said. &uot;We put together reconstruction teams out in the country, rebuilding schools and drilling water wells. Where we could, we built medical clinics.&uot;

The Afghan people have few resources and a difficult life. &uot;There’s not much you can do there,&uot; he said. They look for food and eat when they find it. They sleep. They pray. &uot;And then they start all over again. It’s not a very nice place to have to survive; there is so much stacked against them.&uot;

How his career evolved

Born in Natchez, Greg Champion, who will be 52 in December, moved around with his family as his father, the late Jim Champion, pursued professional football and coaching careers. His mother, Sarah Champion, lives in Natchez and is a native of Franklin County.

After graduation from the University of Southern Mississippi, Champion entered University of Mississippi School of Law . He became interested in the ROTC program at Ole Miss. &uot;I liked it. I went into the ROTC there. It seemed to suit my personality. I thought then I’d like to get into the JAG (judge advocate general) program full time.&uot;

A trip with the ROTC group to Fort Benning, Ga., changed his mind. He saw the airborne and infantry soldiers at work. &uot;I decided to go into the National Guard, get into the infantry and practice law on the civilian side,&uot; he said. But the practice of law did not suit him. He began working in the oil and gas industry, including a stint with Callon Petroleum in Natchez, 1982-1986. He now works for Pioneer Natural Resources Co. of Dallas, an oil and gas exploration company, in business development.

He first joined the 155th

He started out with the 155th Armored Brigade but moved to special forces in 1980. &uot;That got me into airborne training with special forces and a tremendous amount of other training,&uot; he said.

In 1982-1983, his special forces group began participating in European exercises. He became a team commander, then company commander and staff officer and eventually worked up to become battalion operations officer with headquarters in Jackson.

The group was mobilized for Desert Storm, sent to Fort Bragg and trained. &uot;We were validated for combat, but the war was over,&uot; Champion said. &uot;But because we did so well, we were re-oriented to South America and Central America.&uot; That included work in Panama, Honduras, Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina and Chile, for example. &uot;I didn’t go to all those places, but the unit did. We were being utilized as part of the regular military strategy.&uot;

His tenure as commander was up in 1996, and Champion moved to state military headquarters in Jackson, where he became training and evaluations officer for the state. Then in 1999, he moved to Camp Shelby in command of the regional training institute, which serves all the southeastern states.

Meanwhile, he continued to work in the oil and gas industry, fortunate to have employers who believed in the work of the National Guard and remained committed to giving him the time he needed.

The path leading to command

In 2000, he was asked to join the Alabama National Guard and take command of the 20th Special Forces Group. &uot;It meant I had been doing everything right, and we had done the combat training we were supposed to do. This was recognized by the forces at Fort Bragg.&uot;

The new job would tax his time. He began to spend at least 50 percent of his time on duty with the Guard. His civilian company continued to be supportive. &uot;Clearly now my responsibilities spread around the country, with units in nine states and soldiers living in over 40 different states, two territories and a couple of foreign countries,&uot; he said.

Then came the first call to Afghanistan. He led not only his own 20th Special Forces Group but served as commander of other U.S. special forces and Coalition special forces while in Afghanistan in late 2002 and into 2003.

In December 2003, Champion gave up command of the group and took a position at the Alabama Guard state headquarters. He had more time for his civilian job and more time with his wife, Gail. They have one son, 24, who is entering the police academy in Dallas.

&uot;In June I was nominated for the promotion and in October I was approved for brigadier general,&uot; he said. &uot;In early August, the phone call came from Washington that I had been selected to be assigned to another organization going back to Afghanistan.&uot;

In the command structure, he will be the only Guard officer. &uot;I was surprised. I was a staff officer in a National Guard headquarters. At first, I didn’t believe it. I think the reason I was selected was my Special Forces background and my command experience in Afghanistan.&uot;

Champion will go back on active duty sometime after the first of January. He will oversee all combat operations outside the main base in Bagram, Afghanistan.