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CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — With its first groups of Marines leaving home Friday for the military surge into Afghanistan, the 1st Marine Division gathered this week to honor its combat heritage and march off again to war.
Marines, their commanders and veterans of earlier wars gathered Wednesday for a "March Off to War" ceremony outside the division's "White House" headquarters at Camp Pendleton. "We go forward when the country needs us the most," Maj. Gen. Richard Mills reminded the crowd.
Mills, who commands 1st Marine Division, will leave later this month for a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan, where he will take over from Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade and command I Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward) and oversee all Marine forces in southern Afghanistan.
About 4,000 Marines already are in Afghanistan, but the additional forces will rotate to Helmand province with about 6,000 to 7,000 members of the division in the combat zone at any given time, Mills said. "All elements of the division are committed."
One major focus will be maintaining the progress that Marines and Afghan military forces have made in the now-former Taliban stronghold of Marjah. "The build phase relies on security," he said. "We will provide that security envelope."
Mills, decked in desert digital camouflage combat gear with a pistol strapped to his thigh, watched as junior Marines in period war uniforms handed the division's colors from one Marine to another, representing the Corps' continuing legacy of going forward to the fight. The Afghanistan deployment will add another battle streamer to the division colors.
"Battle colors we follow. Battle colors we honor," Mills told the crowd.
A small group of Marines, also decked in combat gear, marched off as the 1st Marine Division Band played "Waltzing Matilda," the division song.
The deployment marks the seventh time the division's colors will be overseas since the division, known as "The Old Breed," was established 69 years ago.
For veterans in the crowd, time seemed to pause. Henry Andrasovsky, a retired gunnery sergeant, fought at Guadalcanal, New Britain and Peleliu, where he was shot twice, and later joined in the Inchon landing and fought at Chosin Reservoir during the Korean conflict. But the sight and ceremony had him reminiscing about earlier years. "I wish I was going with them," he said.
After the ceremony, Andrasovsky, whose red jacket bore patches of veterans organizations and combat experiences, met and shook hands with Mills, who told him, "We stand on your shoulders as we move out."