On the 18th anniversary of the attacks on America, more than 250 Montana Air National Guard members are deployed to support and supply U.S. troops and coalition troops in Afghanistan.

The 120th Airlift Wing arrived at Ali Al Salem Air Base, Kuwait, on July 3 with C-130 cargo planes that are flying personnel, equipment and supplies throughout the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility in Southwest Asia, according to the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs. The Montana Air Guard unit and Connecticut Air Guard replaced guard units from Rhode Island and California. The air crews and maintenance teams "seamlessly transitioned" within 48 hours of the Montanans' arrival so there was no interruption in the mission, according to a news release from 386th Public Affairs.

Over the years, 1,805 Montana National Guard airmen have deployed to the region of Afghanistan or Iraq, according to Capt. Daniel Bushnell, public affairs officer for the Montana National Guard in Helena. Montana has had someone from the wing deploy to Southwest Asia just about every year since 2002.

Likewise, the Montana Army National Guard has served in Afghanistan or Iraq for a generation. Almost immediately after the Sept. 1, 2001, attacks in New York City, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., Montana Army National Guard members mobilized for airport security.

The largest number of Army guardsmen deployed at one time was the 1,147 who were mobilized for Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004-2005. Altogether, nearly 3,000 Montana Army National Guard members have been deployed far from home to combat zones in Afghanistan, Iraq and related regions. Since 2001, Montana Army National Guardsmen (men and women) have answered the call to render aid after Hurricane Katrina tore through New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, along with continual overseas deployments.

Next month, 574 Montana Army National Guardsmen will leave for a full year stint at various locations in Southwest Asia, Bushnell said.

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Montanans should be proud of the ongoing service of our National Guardsmen. Montana Air Guard units have been deployed in support of U.S. operations in Afghanistan, Iraq or other Mideastern locations virtually nonstop.

This nation has asked much of our "citizen soldiers" who volunteer to train part-time in the military while working other full-time jobs. For the past 18 years, being a Guardsman has meant being prepared for full-time military duty far beyond Montana for months or even a year at a time.

These courageous, hardworking Montanans deserve our gratitude. Their families deserve the thanks of our state and nation for sacrificing precious time with their loved ones. We also commend the Montana employers who keep jobs open for Guardsmen so they can resume work when deployments end.

In addition to Montana National Guard personnel, many Montanans have served in the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines since 9/11. Some of the guard and regular military members didn't return, they made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. Many more came home with wounds — seen and unseen. 

The debt America owes to those who served, those wounded, their families and the families of those who died cannot be fully paid. Montanans must speak up to ensure that national and state leaders fulfill obligations to provide the benefits and compensation these military heroes have earned.

America must never forget 9/11; America must always remember the military veterans it created.

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