Historic outfit prepares
for Enduring Freedom
It would be perfectly all right with Lt. Col. Blake Ortner if people do not compare apples with watermelons when they talk about how a historic Virginia Army National Guard infantry outfit is again training to go to war.
We are talking about the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment from Winchester, Va., preparing to deploy to Afghanistan sometime this summer to spend a year helping to fight the global war against terrorism. Those are the apples.
We are talking about the same 116th Regiment, which paid a heavy price in blood, sweat and tears while fighting its way onto Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, during the first two waves of the great D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. Those are the watermelons.
Ortner, the 3rd Battalion commander, and the 570 Guard Soldiers he has led since September 2002 are fully aware of their regiment's place in U.S. military history.
But Ortner likes to keep things in perspective. He knows there is a big difference between a single battalion taking part in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and the entire regiment being at the point of one of the spears that defined Operation Overlord, the greatest invasion the world had ever seen.
"I really find it difficult to compare what we're getting ready to do to D-Day," Ortner said at Fort Bragg, N.C., in early April as his Soldiers were training to serve in a country, where U.S. troops have been seeking out terrorists and weapons caches following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks against this nation.
"The most extreme experience a human being can go through is being a combat infantryman, and nowhere in World War II was the combat more extreme than at Omaha in the early morning hours of June 6," wrote the late historian Stephen Ambrose in his riveting, bestselling book "D-Day."
"The 116th Regiment and the 5th Ranger Battalion ... experienced war at its most horrible, demanding and challenging."
German defenders virtually wiped out isolated Company A of Bedford, Va., in 15 minutes. Wrote Ambrose: "Of the 200-plus men of the company, only a couple of dozen survived, and virtually all of them were wounded."
Other Soldiers in the 116th, however, survived the German's deadly fire to help secure the beachhead and begin the liberation of France and Europe.
World War II veterans and others interested in history will commemorate the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings at Normandy in June.
"I think we are so dwarfed in comparison to what they did when they landed on the beaches," Ortner said. "So, I think [we're] just trying to live up to the honor that they accomplished and to do the best we can to show the same kind of pride and the same kind of duty that they showed when they landed on those beaches in France."
There is plenty to live up to - personally, historically and professionally. For example, Ortner's deceased father, Henry Ortner, was an Army Air Corps crewman on one of the C-47 transports that dropped 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers behind German lines during the night before the June 6 invasion began.
There's also Bosnia and Cuba ... and Bull Run.
About 147 members of the 116th, which is part of the Army Guard's 29th Infantry Division, spent the winter of 1997-98 in Bosnia-Herzegovina guarding a bridge over the Sava River. They served with Co. C, from Leesburg, Va., which is part of the same 3rd Battalion that is now preparing to deploy to Afghanistan.
Members of the 2nd Battalion guarded suspected terrorists from Afghanistan at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba from November 2002 to October 2003.
Bull Run? That's where the 116th earned its nickname as the "Stonewall Brigade" while enduring its baptism of fire during the first major land battle of the Civil War on July 21, 1861.
Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson commanded the Confederate brigade from Virginia that gained immortality when Gen. Barnard Bee, another Southern general, said: "Yonder stands Jackson like a stone wall; let's go to his assistance."
Bull Run. Omaha Beach. Bosnia. Cuba. All are part of the 116th Infantry Regiment's legacy the 3rd Battalion's Soldiers are determined to honor and uphold as they train here, and at Fort Polk, La., for two weeks in June, to serve in Afghanistan.
They are, for the most part, young men who are far more focused on this new mission than they are on their regiment's past.
"Afghanistan is a better mission for us. We're light infantry. We don't deal well with tanks, but we could go anywhere we're needed," said Ortner after watching his 60mm mortar teams conduct a protective fire drill with live rounds at a Fort Bragg range.
For many, serving in a combat zone seems to be the right thing to do.
"I used to play G.I. Joe in the woods when I was growing up, but I never really thought about joining the military. September 11th motivated me to join the Guard," said Spc. Oscar Martinez, 20, who put on hold his college education plans and his hopes to go to helicopter flight school when his infantry unit was called up on March 1.
"I joined when I was still in high school.
I knew there was a likelihood I would be deployed," Martinez added. "Everyone here knew there was a chance we'd have to go, and everyone in my platoon is totally motivated."
Many, including 22-year-old Spc. Daniel Laurion, are already seasoned Soldiers even though they belong to the Guard.
"This will be my second overseas deployment. I spent 10 months at Guantanamo Bay," said Laurion, who carries an M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon as comfortably as many men his age carry a backpack. "I've been in the Guard for four and a half years. I've been on active duty for three of them. I'm getting all of it I can."
Spc. Sheraz Khalid, 25, is getting his chance to return to the part of the world that he knows better than most of his fellow Soldiers. He was born in Pakistan, near the Indian border. He came to America with his parents and a younger sister when he was 11. He became a U.S. citizen in 2001.
He has been back to Pakistan several times, and he married his wife Sadia there in 2001. He has been in the active Army and the Guard for eight years. Now he is a medic who is prepared to leave his wife and 16-month-old son in Virginia to help defend his American homeland.
Khalid is anticipating the chance to help his comrades apply the cultural and linguistic lessons they are learning in classrooms to a part of the world they know little about.
"It's going to be different," he predicted. "You have to respect the differences in the culture. You don't just walk up to a woman and start talking to her. You have to ask her father or her husband for permission first.
"We're going there to help them, not to make them fear us or show disrespect to them," Khalid added.
"I've never been to Afghanistan, but I'm a Soldier. I've got to go where they send me," he said. "I was born in Pakistan, but now I'm an American."
Thursday April 29, 2004