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After heading up the transition of the Duke Brigade from Fort Hood, Texas, to Fort Knox and leading thousands on a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan, Col. Christopher R. Toner inspected his soldiers a final time Thursday before saying goodbye.
Toner relinquished command of the 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, to Col. William B. Ostlund during a ceremony at Brooks Field.
However, he isn’t going far. Toner has been assigned to take over as chief of staff for the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell.
“Duke soldiers, shake it out,” Toner said during the ceremony. At his beckoning, the formation relaxed and the soldiers shook out their joints and loosened their legs while bathed in sunlight.
“Today is not about two men,” Toner said. “It’s about these soldiers.”
During an interview Tuesday in his office, Toner deflected talk about himself to praise the soldiers under his command, describing their efforts as Herculean in the face of a move to another post and a quick turnaround to start intensive training for a deployment to Afghanistan. There, the brigade worked with the Afghan army and police to beat back insurgent uprisings.
While there, Toner and his troops frequently crossed paths with the Haqqani Network, which Toner views as the preeminent insurgency rising to the “top of the pile.”
Though massively depleted and practically defeated militarily, Toner said, the network will regroup and rearm to maintain stature in Afghanistan. But the American military is assisting Afghans in building their own forces, which he said are rapidly improving.
“There’s more work to do,” he said.
Toner also made sure soldiers’ needs were taken care of at home, routinely inspecting the sufficiency of living quarters to ensure no one was “living in squalor,” he said, reflecting on horror stories of commanders finding soldiers living in their cars in subzero temperatures.
The unit had to take in hundreds of millions of dollars in newly manufactured and newly developed technology and equipment. Through all the hard work, he said, the soldiers did their job extraordinarily and without complaint.
Some soldiers are so modest they fail to recognize their accomplishments, he said.
“The only thing that’s frustrating is some of them don’t realize how much they did,” he said.
Toner said he will miss the camaraderie.
“I kinda feel like I’m leaving the team,” he said.
Toner singled out individual soldiers in the brigade for accomplishments and thanked the community for its resolute support, pointing to Barbara Proffitt as a representative of the love and warmth bestowed upon them.
“This is why we call our community home and why you call us your brigade,” he said.
Brig. Gen. Donald M. MacWillie, reviewing officer for the ceremony, praised Toner’s demeanor and leadership qualities.
“Chris, you’re a soldier’s soldier” and the type of leader parents would want to lead their children, he said.
“They tell me you’re the commander every enemy dreads,” he said, recounting how Toner led soldiers into combat and took the fight to the enemy, managing hundreds of operations resulting in the capture of more than 1,800 insurgents and the deaths of hundreds more.
And when the unit absorbed casualties, MacWillie said Toner grieved like a father.
“You cared as if they were your kids, because they were your kids,” he said.
But MacWillie said there is no time to pause because the brigade has work to do.
“Bill and Heather are the right people at the right time to lead them,” he said, referring to Ostlund and his wife.
Ostlund, a Nebraska native, was commissioned through the ROTC at the University of Nebraska and has deployment experience dating back to Operation Desert Shield/
Storm. He also has led a battalion in Afghanistan.
Following in the footsteps of a distinguished combat commander is humbling, Ostlund said, but he is more than ready for the challenge. He said he will work to build on Toner’s success.
Ostlund looked to his soldiers and thanked them for their service.
“You represent the volunteers that are the strength of our nation,” he said.
And he welcomed them as comrades of his own.
“I look forward to serving with you,” he said. “Anytime, anywhere.”
Marty Finley can be reached at (270) 505-1762 or firstname.lastname@example.org