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By Barbara Wilson, Illinois National Guard Public Affairs Office
Five Illinois National Guard Soldiers who deployed in May as part of Bilateral Embedded Staff Team (BEST) A25 are returning home in time for Christmas, wrapping up combat missions with the Polish military in U.S. Central Command that has lasted more than 15 years.
“These missions were vital for our national defense as the country of Poland was part of the U.S. coalition in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fighting together as brothers and sisters in arms strengthened the Illinois National Guard’s unique State Partnership Program relationship with the Polish military,” said Maj. Gen. Rich Neely, The Adjutant General and Commander, Illinois National Guard.
BEST A25, whose mission it was to advise and support the Polish military contingent in Afghanistan, deployed in early May to the U.S. Central Command area in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, arriving in theater amid the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.
The Soldiers are from various communities in Illinois, including Champaign, Chicago, Frankfort, Tinley Park and Collinsville. The Soldiers were selected for the mission based on their training and skills.
“It was not long after combat operations in Iraq began that the Polish military requested a contingent of Illinois National Guard Soldiers to serve as a liaison team. After the Polish shifted forces to Afghanistan, we went with them,” said Maj. Gen. Michael A. Zerbonia, of Chatham, Illinois, Assistant Adjutant General – Army and Commander of Illinois Army National Guard. Maj. Gen. Zerbonia led one of these missions. “The Illinois Army National Guard was requested because of our long-standing and successful partnership with the Polish military.”
The size of these teams has varied from more than 20 led by a colonel to the returning five-person team led by a lieutenant colonel, depending mostly upon the size of the Polish Army contingent they supported. Poland has sent thousands of Soldiers to support U.S.-led efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
During the latest deployment, the team oversaw the retrograde of more than $11.5 million of equipment, updated the Polish armored vehicle fleet and oversaw the end of the Polish mission at Forward Operating Base Fenty, which included the retrograde of more than $6 million in equipment.
Lt. Col. Jason F. Osberg of Champaign, Illinois, BEST A25 Commander, said one of the most important accomplishments of his team was overseeing the end of the Illinois Army National Guard BEST missions. Prior to departing Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan (BAF), BEST A25 turned over operations to 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, based at Fort Drum, New York.
“The BEST missions were extremely important because it not only demonstrated the strong relationship between Poland and the state of Illinois, but it also showed the ILARNG commitment to the war on terror and the NATO mission in Afghanistan,” Osberg said. “It was an honor to command the last rotation, but this is not the end of the relationship between Illinois and Poland - just a closed chapter. I’m confident the relationship will continue in the future.”
The Illinois National Guard has had a State Partnership Program with the Polish military since 1993. The State Partnership Program between the Illinois National Guard and Poland has been the most successful State Partnership in the nation, helping Poland emerge from the Warsaw Pact to become a member of NATO and one of the United States’ staunchest allies.