By Pat Caldwell
For The Observer
Gowen Field, Idaho The light breeze cutting under the tent flaps of the Bravo Company command post was hot and laced with dust.
Inside the tent, shrouded in midmorning darkness, dim shapes huddled near the back of an armored personnel carrier.
Tucked up against the canvas were other shapes, Eastern Oregon Army National Guardsmen in Nomex tanker uniforms trying, despite the heat, to catch some sleep.
Near the back ramp of the APC, one of the shadows leaned forward and peered down at a list held in his right hand.
"The time is scrunched," Maj. Kevin Sheehy said.
The other shadows, Capt. Jason Lambert, commander of The Dalles' Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 116th Cavalry (Armor), and Capt. Jim Jacobs, the 3rd Battalion's Bravo company commander, glanced at a sliver of sunlight coming through the tent opening. Sheehy sighed, looked up from his notes.
"So, Charlie 1-2 has priority?" Sheehy asked.
Lambert, a math teacher at The Dalles High School, nodded and kicked at the hard-packed dirt floor of the tent.
"I've got Charlie 1-2," he replied.
Sheehy scratched on his notes.
"So, what's left?" he asked.
"Bravo 3-3 has our equipment," Lambert said.
"So, we've ID'd six crews, right?" asked Sheehy.
Jacobs, helmet tucked under his right arm, leans forward.
"Is 2-3 still up?" he asked.
For a moment there is silence. Jacobs has suddenly asked the $60 million dollar question: How many tanks can function for the battalion?
Sheehy broke the silence. While there may be time later to reflect on the issue of why so many tanks seem to be facing mechanical problems, this is not it. He has a bigger mission guarantee that the tanks in the battalion function and are available for crews to complete their gunnery qualification assessment.
"Can you two captains work out a way to coordinate crews?" Sheehy asked. Jacobs and Lambert nodded in the shadows.
"OK, then," Sheehy, 37, said and stood up.
The brief meeting in the middle of the afternoon week was over. Sheehy, the S-3 or operations officer for the 3rd Battalion moved to another task, another issue demanding resolution.
After he departed, Lambert and Jacobs started the process of using the remaining tanks for their companies. At first glance it will not be an easy task. An aging tank fleet, budget cuts and a short time frame seem to conspire to make this annual training session unique in terms of challenges for the officers and men of Eastern Oregon's National Guard unit.
"It has been a tough go," Lambert said later. "Not knowing what tanks we have. When tanks are not operational, it's tough to conduct your mission."
Later, near the wooden hut that served as a secondary command center for the battalion tanks conducting gunnery qualification, Sheehy conceded mechanical problems have plagued the battalion.
"We have 10 tanks that fire, seven crews of four and 30 hours," he said.
"The tanks are worn out. Fewer tanks puts stress on leadership and that makes an impact."
Then he squinted through the hard, midday desert sunlight.
"But this is only day three. This kind of thing happens. By the middle of the week, we'll be past this," he said.
Sheehy was right. By Wednesday of that week, most of the mechanical problems were solved and many tank crews had finished their gunnery tests and moved on to other training.
While the initial mechanical problems were challenging, they were not totally unexpected, according to 3rd Battalion commander Lt. Col. Dan McCabe of La Grande. The 3rd Battalion consists of citizen-soldier units from The Dallas, Hermiston, Pendleton, La Grande, Baker City and Ontario.
"We hit the ground running," McCabe said. "These tanks are older, and there are fewer of them than in the past. However, overcoming challenges like this is one of the unique attributes of this unit. Whatever the obstacle this unit seems to encounter, it overcomes it. It is one of our hallmarks, I guess, and issues just get solved."
Solving issues is not an easy job when the tanks are old, time is short and the training regime unforgiving. Sheehy, as the 3rd Battalion's operations officer, said he is familiar with the juggling act between getting the mission accomplished and keeping everything running smoothly for McCabe.
"I plan all of the operations and I plan the training within the commander's vision," Sheehy said.
Every annual training session is like a chain, Sheehy said. If everything goes as planned, each unit leaves its hometown armory in places like Hermiston or La Grande and travels to the Orchard Training Area south of Boise on the high desert. Each unit has a set time to arrive, assemble its equipment and then move onto the training area. As in war, though, sometimes events overtake the plan.
"Things don't happen like you expected," Sheehy, a Union native said.
"If one unit is late, everything starts to jam up. Then I have to prioritize. Later, I brief the commander on the training."
Sheehy was entering into the opening phase of another difficult annual training period. The adjunct professor of history at Eastern Oregon University said his time on the desert with the 3rd Battalion is worth it.
"I like doing this. I like to influence things and I get to do that," Sheehy said.
Most of the Guardsmen in the 3rd Battalion, according to Master Sgt. Tim Grove, are not at annual training to make a million dollars.
"We do get some guys out here for the money for college. Then they find out how important the Guard is to their local communities and their county and they stay on," Grove said.
Grove, formerly of Vale and now a Baker City resident, said a number of factors keep citizen-soldiers coming back to the 3rd Battalion.
"We are a family, in a way, and I think there is a real sense of pride and accomplishment that goes along with it. Not many people are willing to go out here and train 18 to 20 hours a day and keep coming back for more. We go through something extraordinary," Grove said.
The 3rd Battalion provides a subtle but vital link for towns scattered across Eastern Oregon, to Sgt. 1st Class Alex Porter said.
Porter, assigned to the 3rd Battalion's Charlie Company at The Dalles, said each unit is a reflection of the whole region.
"We have three soldiers who live in Spokane, two in Newport and one comes from Ontario," Porter said.
McCabe agreed the 3rd Battalion is a mirror of the region.
Down the tank line one day last week, Guardsman Jacob Pfnister, 19, of La Grande viewed annual training and his decision to join the 3rd Battalion in more concrete terms.
"I wanted to drive a tank, try something new that most people do not do, like drive a 60-ton armored vehicle," Pfnister said.
Though this summer is his first annual training, Pfnister said, things were going well.
"I miss home, my family, friends but its been a fun experience," he said.