War wanes, but 776th mission may be just beginning

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   Yellow ribbons were prominent in Elizabethton Saturday morning as dozens of citizens turned out for Operation Yellow Ribbon to pay tribute to the members of the 776th Maintenance Company and 730th Quartermaster Supply Company.
   The question of when Guard members will be returning home remains unknown. "We have no idea when we are coming home," said Capt. Larry Northcutt, company commander who was in town for the ceremony. "We don't know anything at this point."
   Based in Elizabethton with a detachment in Mountain City, the 776th has approximately 156 members who provide mechanical support and service for machinery and vehicles. The 776th was activated for up to one year of active duty on Jan. 27. The unit's mission has focused on vehicle maintenance and service support for Fort Campbell-stationed units, primarily the 101st Airborne. Many members of the 730th were deployed to the Persian Gulf and have remained in Iraq as part of the peacetime operations. Both units are part of the 176th Maintenance Battalion headquartered in Gray. For the 776th, the biggest challenge is expected to come when equipment and vehicles involved in the invasion begin rotating back to Fort Campbell, Ky.
   "Morale has been really good and very high," said Northcutt. "We're working with supply, issuing uniforms and preparing the equipment to depart. As the units start to come home, all that is reversed." Northcutt said a typical day for the 776th involved repairing and inspecting vehicles and equipment. Of course, PT -- physical training to the civilian -- greets soldiers every morning. The 776th had completed a four-mile run with members of the 101st Airborne during the past week, Northcutt said.
   Political dignitaries and members of the Veterans War Memorial Committee were also on hand.
   Northcutt's wife, Christine, related the now-famous "who packed your parachute?" story of U.S. Navy fighter pilot Charles Plum who was shot down during a combat mission over Vietnam and had to eject, parachuting into enemy territory. Plum was captured and held as a prisoner of war for six years before his liberation. Some years later, Plum met the sailor who had packed his parachute that day. The story illuminated the critical role support and supply units play in military success.
   "These are not soldiers who receive all the glory; in fact, they usually go unnoticed," Christine Northcutt told the crowd. A message she urged should be conveyable to every life. "As you go through your world, recognize the people who pack your parachute," she added.
   Saturday's event developed as part patriotic tribute and part tent revival. State Rep. David Davis, R-Johnson City, invoked a scripture of Psalms, telling the crowd, "We are a Christian nation," while Bill Snodgrass of U.S. Rep. Bill Jenkins' office read a rendition of a poem called "I Am the Flag" that got at least one amen from the crowd.
   The U.S. Department of Defense reported on Friday the total Reserve and National Guard on active duty stood at 219,651 including both units and individual augmentees. More than 3,500 Tennessee Army and Air National Guard soldiers and airmen deployed in support of Operations Noble Eagle, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom.
   The 776th and 730th were activated for up to one year of duty. The 776th was activated in December and departed Elizabethton in January. The Tennessee National Guard has established Family Readiness Support Centers throughout the state to help deal with issues concerning deployed National Guard members, their families and employers. The Family Readiness Support Centers have been established with toll-free numbers at the following locations in 10 Tennessee cities. The Johnson City Center is accessible at 888-544-1769.
   Capt. Northcutt said the bulk of vehicles and machinery used by the 101st Airborne remain operating in Iraq. The company's mission is likely to switch into high gear to restore vehicles damaged by enemy fire and the desert elements.
   "We'll do whatever we are needed to do to get the job done," said Northcutt.