News: Esprit de corps pays dividends for cavalry unit
Story by Staff Sgt. Patrick Caldwell
JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq – For the soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, 116th Cavalry Regiment, 77th Sustainment Brigade, 310th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, the light at the end of the deployment tunnel is gradually growing brighter.
That light will remain dim for a little longer, but the unit has reached and then skirted past the halfway mark on its one-year deployment to central Iraq.
The last 90 to 120 days of a tour in Iraq can be a hazardous period, according to the commander of the 3rd Bn., Lt. Col. Phil Appleton, a Silverton, Ore. native.
“It is the second most dangerous time in Iraq. The reason is not because the environment has changed, but because soldiers can get overconfident or cut corners,” he said.
Finding practical methods to combat that scenario remain a key part of Appleton’s job during the next few months. There are several techniques to keep soldiers focused on the job at hand, he said.
“We changed routes so soldiers would see different terrain and stay as fresh as possible,” Appleton said.
Increased vigilance also means leaders must step up their game.
“One of the unique challenges is commanders and junior leaders must stay engaged,” he said.
The leadership aspect may be one of the most important elements of the next 100 days, Appleton said.
“The focus is on direct leadership, so we don’t have simple mistakes that could cause a soldier to be injured. We have to be vigilant,” he said.
Appleton remains confident his unit will be just fine as its tour of duty winds down.
“The battalion continues to do exceptionally well in a sensitive and challenging environment,” he said. ”Our soldiers have a phenomenal attitude day in and day out.”
Appleton said the 3rd Bn. conducted more than 1,000 convoy escort missions since it arrived in central Iraq in late November. He also said the operational environment in which the 3rd Bn. works contains its own set of distinct difficulties.
“The [counterinsurgency] environment is not easy. Things are not cut and dry,” he said.
The 3rd Bn.’s mission is very different than the one U.S. forces performed during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Now under the banner of Operation New Dawn, U.S. military forces are either in an advise-and-assist role – helping train the Iraq military – or reposturing forces as U.S. troops prepare to depart Iraq.
When the 3rd Bn. deployed to Iraq in 2004, the unit focused on finding and fighting insurgents. Now, the battalion safeguards logistical convoys across central Iraq.
Appleton admitted a certain degree of risk still shrouds the convoy missions.
“This is a very dynamic environment. Soldiers that were here last time are seeing more contact incidents this deployment than last deployment,” he said.
Appleton said the risk for 3rd Bn. Soldiers is managed through a complex web that combines technology, equipment, training and the intangible impact of esprit de corps.
“Our equipment and our level of professionalism in our soldiers has saved lives,” he said.
The 3rd Bn. commander pointed out that the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles proved to be a game-changer in terms of safety for his soldiers. Long months of preparation before the deployment also proved invaluable, he said.
“The training at Camp Shelby, pre-mobilization instruction, leader development, all of it has paid off,” he said.
Appleton said his gaze is already fixed toward the remobilization procedure when the battalion returns home this fall.
“I’m looking at the [remobilization] process and making sure, administratively, we have things in place,” he said.
Appleton said the procedure is very important. He said he believes the Army, and the leadership of the 3rd Bn., will ensure all of its soldiers receive the best care possible.
“If we broke them, we have a responsibility as leaders to fix them,” Appleton said. “I will do everything feasible to make sure soldiers get the proper care if they need it. I have all the faith in the world that Fort Lewis can provide the care efficiently, and I look forward to working with them.”