Tradition of Triumph Propels Oregon Cavalry Unit

116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team

Story by Staff Sgt. Patrick Caldwell

A Bradley fighting vehicle commanded by Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Scott of Carlton, Ore. and assigned to Alpha Company, 3rd Battalion, 116th Cavalry Regiment, Oregon Army National Guard moves down a gunnery range at the Orchard Combat Training Center south of Boise, Idaho. This month Alpha Company, along with the rest of the 3rd Battalion will conduct training at the Orchard Combat Training Center in preparation for an August rotation at the National Training Center.
LA GRANDE, Ore. – Nearly four decades of tradition and history will be on the line this summer when the 3rd Battalion, 116th Cavalry Regiment, Oregon Army National Guard deploys to the National Training Center in the Mohave Desert.

The 3rd Battalion is scheduled to participate in a three-week exercise at the renowned and secluded training area in August. The National Training Center (NTC) is considered the premier training place in the world, 3rd Battalion commander, Lt. Col. Brian Dean, a Salem, Oregon resident, said.

The challenge at NTC is a big one, Dean said, but his unit will be able to call upon more than 30 years of success in peacetime and war to help it succeed.

In a subtle way the 3rd Battalion managed to build a solid record of achievement, unique for a combat unit tucked neatly into the rural heartland of America. For more than 30 years – including two combat tours in Iraq – the unit acquired prominence though a combination of professionalism married to a distinctive Eastern Oregon outlook, but the trip to triumph was not always an easy journey.

The battalion weathered unique challenges, such as shifts in its mission, consistent turnover in leaders and a constant battle to attract the best qualified people every year, since its inception in the early 1970s to the present day. Still, the battalion was successful every year.

Col. Kevin Sheehy, retired, spent 17 years in the battalion before he moved up to the deputy brigade commander slot for the Oregon Guard’s 41st Brigade Combat Team.

Sheehy, a Union, Oregon, native, served as a company commander and operations officer before he commanded the unit and said the ingredients to success are excavated from the type of soldier the battalion attracts to its ranks.

“It is the personnel that are in the unit,” Sheehy said. “You might have a sergeant who is a gunner from, say, Hermiston, Oregon, and that dude has a good reputation in the community as a person and has a good reputation in the Guard. He typically isn’t going to be self-aggrandizing but he will be all about getting the job done.”

A distinctive culture viewpoint generated out of the small towns that dot the Interstate 84 corridor through Eastern Oregon is another critical attribute of the unit, Sheehy said.

“That is a big part of what makes the unit great,” Sheehy said. “The people of Eastern Oregon are individualists, typically proud to serve in the military. They are typically not doing it for money and once they get into the professional ranks of the non-commissioned officer corps they are doing it because they like the unit and they want to serve.”

Sheehy also pointed out an interesting fact about the region’s largest Army National Guard unit. During its 30-year history, it produced three Eastern Oregon natives who became generals and at least five individuals from the region that retired as Colonels. All of those men began and established their careers in the battalion and several of those officers began their military service as enlisted men and moved their way up the ranks. The unit also deployed twice to Iraq during the war on terror and performed well in combat. The fact the unit produced so many successful leaders can trace its origins back to the battalion’s character, Sheehy said.

“That is a testament to the organization,” Sheehy said.

Another tribute to the unit’s competence arrived shortly after it returned from its second tour of duty in Iraq when the unit was issued the U.S. Army’s newest, high-tech tank, the M1A2 System Enhanced Program (SEP) Abrams tank. It was one of the only Guard units in the nation to be issued the new tank. Dean said the selection of the battalion to field the new tanks was significant.

“A unit does not receive that kind of distinction or opportunity without having proven itself superior to its peers over time,” he said.

Master Sgt. Daniel Ishaug, a La Grande, Oregon, resident, and the Abrams tank master gunner for the battalion summed up the unit’s attitude in one simple sentence.

“We take our jobs seriously and we have a good track record,” Ishaug said.

The unit is also an organization that carries a deep-rooted heritage tied to U.S. Cavalry history. Now a modern Cavalry unit – that employs tanks and armored Bradly fighting vehicles – the 3rd Battalion’s storied past traces back to pioneer days when small bands of mounted warriors protected wagon trains.

Like many military units of the past, the 3rd Battalion is also linked to an identifiable landmark and mission. While the French Foreign Legion had Sidi Bel Abbes in Algeria and the Marine Corps has such renowned training areas as Parris Island North Carolina, the 3rd Battalion is interconnected to the Orchard Combat Training Center south of Boise, Idaho.

It is the desolate training area south of the Gem state’s capital that in many ways personifies the battalion. The Orchard Combat Training Center evolved right along with the battalion and what was once a barren, remote desert training area is now a place that boasts state-of-the-art tank gunnery ranges and a host of other elements fitting for a place to hone armor skills.

Once simply referred to as “Gowen Field” – in recognition of the Idaho Air National Guard Airbase outside of Boise – the Orchard Combat Training Center is one of the few, fundamental time-honored traditions every battalion member endured at one time or another.

While light years ahead – in terms of infrastructure – of what it once was in the 1970s and 1980s, the Orchard Combat Training Center is still an austere, isolated place where climate extremes are the rule rather than the exception.

It is across this bleak landscape nearly every summer, since the mid-1970s, that Guardsmen from across Eastern Oregon trained for war. A two or three week training exercise at Orchard Combat Training Center evolved over time into a unique rite of passage for 3rd Battalion members, former unit commander Col. Brian Cole, retired, said.

“Until you go to Annual Training [at Orchard Training Center], other than a deployment, that is your only test and your first chance to start working as a team in austere conditions. It is the first time you are living in the field and sleeping on or near your tank,” Cole said.

Cole, a La Grande, Oregon, resident, first entered the battalion as an enlisted man and eventually climbed through the ranks to command the unit before he retired from the Oregon National Guard. Cole said Guardsmen in the battalion deal with two drastically opposed paradigms every month. For most of the month they are civilians, working regular jobs. Then, one weekend a month, they must shift focus.

“You know, you are at work on Friday at 10 a.m. and by Friday night at 10 p.m. you are on your tank drawing equipment. Your brain has to shift gear. It is a whole different paradigm when you go to another state and go out onto the desert,” Cole said.

La Grande, Oregon, resident Todd Gorham, who retired as a first sergeant from the 3rd Battalion, agreed with Cole that the Orchard Combat Training Center represents an exclusive kind of ritual for members – past and present – of the Eastern Oregon citizen-soldier unit.

“It is a rite of passage but it also ends up being a kind of home away from home. After 20 years of going down there you feel like you are part of the place,” Gorham said.

This summer will be one of tests for the Eastern Oregon Guard unit. Before it journeys to the Mohave, the battalion will conduct several weeks of gunnery and other training at the Orchard Combat Training Center this month.

The June exercises are important too, Dean said.

“My goal for June gunnery is to sharpen the skills the maneuver platoons practiced last year and further their confidence in themselves and their systems. I will invest everything I have into the soldiers and leaders to make them successful,” Dean said.

Dean said he believes the battalion will be able to live up to its mythic past this summer. The fact many of the soldiers in the unit already carry one or two tours of combat duty under their belts should pay dividends, he said.

“Being deployed overseas in a combat environment develops deep bonds in soldiers and leaders. They are tested repeatedly in situations that would not present themselves in peace time. The skills they develop and the hardships they overcome makes them superior in most ways,” he said.

The 3rd Battalion consists of Oregon Army National Guard units from Woodburn, Hood River, The Dalles, Hermiston, Pendleton, La Grande, Baker City and Ontario.