By Steve Vogel
Friday, December 12, 2003
For the U.S. Army's Old Guard, the war in Iraq has been one of ceremony: escorting the caskets of fallen soldiers as they arrive at Dover Air Force Base, serving at dozens of burials at Arlington National Cemetery, standing watch over the Tomb of the Unknowns.
In coming days, for the first time since the Vietnam War, a company of soldiers from this prestigious ceremonial unit will join the battle overseas, deploying to the Horn of Africa for the fight against terrorism.
Strained by combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as commitments in South Korea and the Balkans, the Army has ordered soldiers from the unit's Bravo Company to put their dress blues in the closet and don desert camouflage battle fatigues.
At Fort Myer in Arlington, home to the regiment, soldiers are making final preparations for their departure. Inside the post's chilly Conmy Hall, many of the more than 150 soldiers deploying were standing in lines one recent morning to pick up the last pieces of equipment they need to pack, including gloves and an extra pair of tan boots.
The troops spent some final leave time with their families over Thanksgiving after returning from Fort Polk, La., where they underwent specialized training for urban combat and protecting convoys.
“To see us go from a ceremonial unit to a tactically proficient unit was pretty amazing,” said Staff Sgt. Mike Wilson, one of the Old Guard soldiers who is deploying. “People who looked at us a month and a half ago would have seen something completely different.”
The soldiers of Bravo Company will soon bid farewell to their families at Fort Myer and board buses for the drive to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where they will fly overseas.
They will join the Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa, a force of 1,800 U.S. troops headquartered in Djibouti that is under the command of a Marine Corps general and responsible for fighting terrorist activities in seven countries in East Africa. Bravo Company will likely be gone for six months but possibly up to a year, commanders said.
In one sense, the deployment is nothing new for the Old Guard. “It's been amazing to me that a lot of people have raised eyebrows,” said Colonel Chuck Taylor, commander of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, as the unit is officially known.
The Old Guard is, after all, the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the Army, tracing its origins to 1784 and first seeing combat under General “Mad” Anthony Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in the Northwest Territory in 1794. Among its 50 battle streamers are ones from Chapultapec in 1847, Gettysburg in 1863, Luzon in 1900 and Northern France in World War II.
The regiment's headquarters, in a brick building at Fort Myer, is named after an Old Guard Medal of Honor recipient, Corporal Michael Fallon, who sacrificed his life to save his comrades by throwing himself on a grenade in Long Kahn Province in Vietnam in 1969.
Selection for the Old Guard is considered an honor in the Army, and despite their ceremonial duties, the troops have always regularly trained their infantry skills. “We're basically an infantry unit that does ceremonies,” said Sergeant First Class Fred Silhol, 42, an Old Guard platoon sergeant.
Still, it has been more than three decades since the Old Guard has seen action, and the deployment orders came as a shock to many of the Bravo Company soldiers and their families.
Staff Sergeant Wilson, 34, a native of California who had served previously with the Old Guard, returned this summer after a stint with the 10th Mountain Division in Bosnia, and he was looking forward to staying in one place. “I came here thinking, they don't deploy much,” he said.
Wilson had settled into a routine serving as a squad leader for a casket team detailed to funerals at Arlington. “When you're here, and you're a ceremonial soldier, it can almost be like a regular job,” he said. “You're not really participating in global operations.”
After his initial dismay when the deployment order came in October, Wilson said, he became excited at the prospect. “Your whole attitude changes,” he said. “It puts a fire under you.”
But Wilson's face clouded as he described having to leave his wife, Bonnie, and 3-year-old son, Thomas. “Having to explain it to your son, that's the hardest part,” he said.
The deployment is interrupting other lives. “I was preparing for a new family,” said Specialist Robert Meacham, 23. His wife, Bethany, 21, is expecting their first child next month.
Bethany Meacham is leaving their home at Fort Belvoir to be with family in Tennessee. “I don't want him to be over there and in the back of his mind worrying about me,” she said.
The two are resigned to the fact that Robert Meacham will miss his child's birth. “It's something I think about every single day,” he said. “I think about it, but I don't dwell on it. If I were to dwell on it, it might affect how I do my job.”
For some soldiers, it will be a relief to miss funeral details at Arlington. The steady stream of casualties from Iraq that have been buried at Arlington this year has been difficult emotionally.
“Sometimes, something will get to you, especially if they were younger than you,” said Spec. Travis Steele, 23.
Last month, the Old Guard had to bury one of its own at Arlington. Private First Class Leonel Cabrera, 20, a medic with the Old Guard's medical platoon, was killed in a training accident November 12, 2003, at Fort A.P. Hill southeast of Fredericksburg when a radio antenna he was helping erect struck a 7,200-volt power antenna.
The death of the popular Manassas native on the eve of Bravo Company's departure has brought home the inherent danger of military operations, commanders said. “The loss of one of our own made everybody realize, no matter how simple the task, there is risk,” Taylor said.
Despite the departure of one of its six companies, Taylor said, the Old Guard will be able to meet all its ceremonial obligations, including maintaining a 24-hour-a-day vigil at the Tomb of the Unknowns and escorting the remains of dead U.S. service members when they arrive at Dover. The regiment is planning to curtail the number of Twilight Tattoo ceremonies it holds for the public at the Ellipse in Washington each summer, Taylor said.
The regiment also will maintain its contingency mission to respond to military emergencies in the Washington area, Taylor said. When a hijacked plane hit the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, soldiers from the Old Guard were among the first to respond, including some now deploying to the Horn of Africa.
“A lot of my guys were at the Pentagon September 11, digging out remains,” said Sgt. 1st Class Silhol. “They had those images burned in their heads.”
For those soldiers, Silhol added, motivation to fight terrorism “is not a problem.”
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard