By Amanda Kim Stairrett
Fort Hood Herald
Ask 1st Cavalry Division soldiers in Iraq what comes to mind when they hear “1st Cav” and “First Team.”
“The best division in the Army.”
“High-speed dedication and commitment.”
“Ruling the battlefield ... high spirits, uplifting, motivated soldiers and dedicated people.”
It could be said that every unit sparks a certain loyalty and pride, but past and present members of Fort Hood’s 1st Cavalry probably would argue that the First Team is special.
The division will celebrate its 86th birthday Thursday.
From 22-year-old Spc. James Alfred, a nuclear biological chemical noncommissioned officer for Headquarters and Headquarters Company, Division Special Troops Battalion in Iraq, to retired Command Sgt. Maj. Dennis Webster, who served as the division senior noncommissioned officer from 1996 to 1998, feelings for the 1st Cavalry run deep.
“A sense of pride comes to mind because the 1st Cav is the first unit of assignment for me,” Alfred said. “I’ve been with the 1st Cav my whole career. I deployed with them. All of my Army experience is with the 1st Cav.”
Every unit has history, Webster said, and some go back further than the 1st Cavalry. But, he has served in two other divisions and said the 1st Cavalry has a different feeling than any other.
“There’s something special about the Cav and the 1st Cavalry Division,” he said.
“There’s nothing like the feeling in a Cav unit.”
That feeling and sense of belonging is hard to verbalize, said retired Staff Sgt. Joseph Reeves, who served with the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade from 2001 to 2005. He likened it to the sense of pride that Texans have in their state. His wife is a Texan and he isn’t, and he didn’t understand what that feeling meant for people like her.
“Then we moved to Texas and I got it,” he said.
It’s that same kind of hard-to-describe feeling he has for the 1st Cavalry.
“I can’t adequately verbalize and it will be with me forever now,” Reeves said.
For former soldiers, “Once Cav, always Cav,” said retired Col. Raul Villaronga, who served as a company commander for the division from 1966-1967.
He, Webster, Reeves and retired Col. Joseph W. McNaney are all members of the 1st Cavalry Division Association, an organization of former soldiers who continue to support the division. They are the guys who still attend Purple Heart ceremonies, changes of command and whatever else the division hosts. They are the former soldiers who visit the flight line as their current counterparts depart for war. They are the former soldiers who are there when those soldiers return. They are the soldiers who still proudly wear their Stetsons — a favorite 1st Cavalry tradition.
It’s perhaps the Stetson that is the most recognizable symbol of the division. Any 1st Cavalry soldier or trooper in an Army cavalry unit is authorized to wear the Stetson, but the tradition actually began with the division during the Vietnam War, said Steven Draper, the 1st Cavalry museum’s curator. A division colonel was the first to wear the black Stetson with cords and the trend continued to spread.
First Cavalry soldiers who put on those Stetsons start standing up a little taller and have a special glint in their eyes, Draper said.
Reeves retired about two years ago, his last assignment was with the division. Many of the soldiers he served with are still in the Army and are currently serving with the division in Iraq. He saw many of them off while wearing his Stetson, he said proudly.
Other members of the association attend nearly every deployment and homecoming because they know the importance of showing their support to the young soldiers in Action Combat Uniforms. Many of these former soldiers served in Vietnam and didn’t get any support. Webster said he stood alongside the father of a returning soldier during a homecoming once and the father said, “This is how it’s supposed to be done.” The father served in the Vietnam War and he didn’t get a joyous welcome home.
When Villaronga returned from Vietnam, he was told not to wear his uniform because of the backlash he might encounter.
“That kind of reception I’ve never forgotten,” he said sadly.
“Living the Legend” means you have to understand your history, said Col. Larry Phelps, the division’s current rear commander.
“Understand the great troopers that have served before you, understand the traditions of the Cav,” he added. “Understand that there are big boots to fill that have won battles and wars and have served with distinction. It means understanding that legacy of service. It means living up to the great tradition of selfless warriors.”
Remembering that past and the history of the 1st Cavalry is important “so you never forget the honor and sacrifice all the soldiers before you made,” said Sgt. Karlos Murphy, a 22-year-old chemical operations specialist. He is currently serving in Iraq with the 181st Chemical Platoon, Bravo Battery, 55th Air Defense Artillery, Division Special Troops Battalion.
Though the division has regiments that date back to the early days of the nation, it is the 86 years of 1st Cavalry history that show just how much the Army and its forces have changed.
“Eighty-six years ago we were on horses,” Draper said. “Today we’re riding Bradleys and Strykers ... and Black Hawks and Apaches.
“From single horsepower to multiple horsepower,” he added.
“The first thing that always comes to mind is the legend of the Cavalry and what a proud and prestigious unit it is with it’s long line of great troopers who have served here,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Philip Johndrow, the division’s current senior noncommissioned officer. “I think of the finest and most prestigious cavalry division ever to grace the face of the earth.”
The history of the division stands behind every soldier of the division, Draper said.
“People who put on our patch kind of change.”
Those soldiers have a “certain swagger” that is specific to a Cavalryman, Draper said.
There is a “flash and panache about being Cav,” he said.
Keeping part of that flash and panache going is the responsibility of the division’s Horse Cavalry Detachment.
The detachment’s troopers “serve as a link to America’s military past,” according to their Web site at www.cavcountry.net, dressing in cavalry uniforms from the 1880s and performing cavalry-tactics demonstrations. The troopers are present at nearly every 1st Cavalry event.
Sgt. Kurt Bailey, the 25-year-old noncommissioned officer in charge of the farrier shop, said that it gives him pride knowing he is part of maintaining cavalry history. He has learned about how cavalry troopers lived and fought in the past by shooting similar guns and swinging similar sabers, wearing replica uniforms and riding on the same kinds of saddles, “not the most comfortable thing in the world.”
He said the job is “probably one of the coolest things you can do in the Army,” and admitted that before he was assigned to the division, he didn’t even know the cavalry still existed.
Now he knows that the cavalry spirit is “still very much alive.”
“All the way from Custer to Iraq,” he said later.
Another 1st Cavalry tradition that is a favorite among new and seasoned soldiers is the detachment’s Cavalry Charge. During the demonstration, troopers race their horses and fire their weapons as if they were charging down the battlefield.
“The tradition of the Cavalry Charge — for what it stands for, coming just in the nick of time — this is some of what we do every day,” Johndrow said.
Villaronga said the charge epitomized the spirit and history of the cavalry.
Solders live for supplying tradition to the next generation, said Staff Sgt. Nelson Velazquez, a 25-year-old supply sergeant serving in Iraq with the division’s Alpha Company, Command Post Attachment, Division Special Troops Battalion.
Staff Sgt. Justin Wisen thinks it is important to remember tradition, history and background because that is where family comes from and being in the division is more like a family.
The division, like a family, spans generations with one common bond.
McNaney served as the division surgeon and 15th Medical Battalion commander in Vietnam from 1969-1970, and retired at Fort Hood in 1984. He calls his year with the 1st Cavalry the highlight of his career.
“It just becomes being part of the family,” he said.
Contact Amanda Kim Stairrett at email@example.com or (254) 501-7547