Remaining relevant

January 18, 2013 09:54 am

Guardsmen from Eastern Oregonís 3rd Battalion train at Camp Shelby, Miss., in this 2010 photo. Top leaders of the regionís largest Guard unit say the outfit is trained and ready to meet both national and local emergencies. PAT CALDWELL photo
Guardsmen from Eastern Oregonís 3rd Battalion train at Camp Shelby, Miss., in this 2010 photo. Top leaders of the regionís largest Guard unit say the outfit is trained and ready to meet both national and local emergencies. PAT CALDWELL photo

By Pat Caldwell, Observer correspondent

The versatility of the region’s Army National Guard unit will ensure it remains relevant in the future even as deployments to foreign shores dwindle and the nation transitions from war to peace, according to top leaders of the 3rd Battalion, 116th Cavalry Regiment. 

The battalion — consisting of Guard units from Hood River to Ontario, with its headquarters in La Grande — is uniquely suited to meet national defense requirements and, at the same time, furnish expertise for local communities in the event of a natural disaster or homegrown emergencies. 

The battalion’s proven agility during two combat deployments translates into a unique set of skill sets for area officials to call upon, according to Lt. Col. Jason Lambert, the battalion commander. Lambert, Hermiston, said the battalion’s leadership framework is one of its key assets.

“The command structure that is already in place, within a combat arms battalion, makes us very flexible if we were to get re-missioned for homeland defense or emergency operations,” Lambert said.

For the past 10 years the 3rd Battalion, like many Guard units of similar size across America, spent most of its time preparing for a deployment to a combat zone. Twice — in 2004 and again in 2010 — the 3rd Battalion deployed to Iraq. Those deployments changed the Eastern Oregon unit forever, many top battalion leaders admit, but also created a seasoned unit ready for any crisis.

“We train utilizing the military rank structure, communications devices and orders processes that will make the transition to any type of operations smoother,” Lambert said.

For the past eight months, most of the news revolving around the battalion centered on the fact it was selected to receive the newest, high-tech model of the U.S. Army’s Abrams tank. The upgraded armored battlewagon, called the M1-A2 SEP, is a state-of-the-art weapons system. The 3rd Battalion was the only National Guard unit in the nation to receive the new tank.

Yet, while its war-making capabilities remain a central focus for the battalion, its other mission — to provide assistance to state and local authorities in an emergency — is a key theme for its leaders as well. While the unit learns the finer points of the new tank, it also must keep an eye on training to help state and regional communities, Lambert said.

“Key leaders within the battalion participate in state training exercises that help prepare us for such operations. (Community assistance) is an important part of the mission of today’s National Guard,” Lambert said.

Another advantage the battalion boasts is its organization. The battalion consists of two tank companies, two companies of infantry, who operate from M2-A3 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and a support outfit. That configuration is one that can furnish dividends on the battlefield and at home in Eastern Oregon, Maj. John Qualls, the battalion’s second-in-command, said.

“The organic structure of the battalion certainly makes it more flexible to meet the requirements of a changing environment. The battalion, with Fox Company (Baker City) and Headquarters and Headquarters Company (La Grande) allows it to be self-supportive for short periods of time,” he said.

Qualls pointed out that the battalion can deliver trained Guardsmen — many of them who secured hard experience from two combat tours — to the small towns of Eastern Oregon within hours of a call-up. Qualls said the critical common theme for success with the battalion is the Guardsmen who fill its ranks.

Qualls used a current example from the war in Afghanistan to illustrate the versatility of the Guard.

“The Army saw a need for agriculture development in Afghanistan and Iraq in order for those nations to be more prosperous and as a way to provide economic support to help legitimize the government,” Qualls said. “Because of their civilian expertise in agriculture, several states have created National Guard Agriculture Development Teams.”

The teams, Qualls said, made a real difference and leveraged the already existing skills of Guardsmen.

“These teams work closely with other agencies, such as the Department of Agriculture, on training and creating more effective programs for underdeveloped countries to grow food more efficiently,” he said.

Most 3rd Battalion Guardsmen bring skills acquired from a civilian job to their service, which in turn means an individual better equipped to face any emergency.

That versatility means the battalion will most likely remain a centerpiece for state and national officials in a time of emergency. 

A good case in point is the new tank. 

While a large share of the Defense of Department seeks to pare down its force and make funding cuts, the future of the 3rd Battalion remains bright. The unit is not searching for a way to cut its force, but actively seeking to add new recruits and has funds for a long-term training program because of the new M1-A2 SEP.

The agile nature of the unit, Qualls said, means it can go to war and fight in a host of configurations or remain at home, train on the new tanks and stand ready to meet a local emergency such as a flood or a big forest fire.