Halfway finished with a nine-month rotation to Korea, a Fort Hood brigade has forged strong bonds with the South Korean army, participated in unique training opportunities and is doing its part to keep stability in a part of the world where all-out war with North Korea could start at any moment.
At the end of May, 1st Cavalry Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team, known as the “Black Jack” Brigade, deployed for the first brigade-sized rotation to Korea. Composed of seven battalions and about 4,200 troops, the brigade replaced the long-standing 1st “Iron” Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, which had been on the Korean Peninsula since 1965. The Army began rotating individual battalions to Korea in 2014. The “Iron” Brigade was inactivated earlier this year, and the “Black Jack” Brigade will be replaced by another rotating brigade, although the Army has made no official announcement on who that will be.
Big guns in place
When it left Fort Hood at the end of May, the Black Jack Brigade did not have to bring its tanks, Bradley Fighting Vehicles and other big equipment to the peninsula.
“We fell in on all the equipment Iron Brigade had,” said Col. Sean Bernabe, commander of 2nd Brigade.
He said his troops have participated in training exercises they are not likely to see anywhere else in the world, including a lot of combined training with the U.S. Air Force, South Korean army and other forces.
“The nine months will go quickly,” said Bernabe. “It certainly has for us.”
One of the big takeaways from the rotation, said the brigade commander, is the importance of relationships with the South Korean army and population.
“There was a little bit of angst on the part of the Koreans” when the announcement was made that 1st “Iron” Brigade would be replaced by rotational units, Bernabe said.
‘Relationships are critical’
Black Jack has made it a priority to see that those relationships remain healthy. The brigade is in regular contact with their South Korean counterparts.
“Relationships are critical,” Bernabe said. “This is a lesson we’ve learned in other places.”
With Black Jack, those relationships have extended down to the platoon level, with both American and South Korean troops participating in force-on-force training. And it’s not uncommon to see Black Jack and South Korean army leaders participating in ceremonies together or eating a meal, Bernabe said. On the day he was interviewed for this report, Bernabe said he was due to have lunch with leaders of the South Korean 7th Mechanized Brigade.
“We’re going to have lunch with them and talk about a few things,” Bernabe said.
In another example of establishing relations, one of the 2nd Brigade’s battalions — 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment — recently signed a “friendship agreement” with a unit from South Korea in a formal ceremony.
Bernabe said he will advise the next commander who takes a brigade to Korea to “seek every training opportunity he can get.”
From shooting gunnery on the lush green tank ranges in Korea to the multi-force military exercises that go on, Bernabe said his troops during the nine-month rotation will probably get the equivalent of training they would get in 18 months elsewhere.
Black Jack’s top enlisted solder, Command Sgt. Maj. James Scullion said troops are able to get training at the individual level, too. They’ve participated in air assault school, expert infantry and medical badge courses and other opportunities.
In Korea, Black Jack falls under the command of 2nd Infantry Division, and in the last five months, Black Jack soldiers have achieved numerous accolades within the division, Scullion said. They include the division NCO of the quarter, multiple Audie Murphy Club inductees and other accomplishments that can help propel the career of a soldier.
“I think being here allows soldiers to focus on their given task,” Scullion said.
Scullion’s advice to the next batch of soldiers who rotate to Korea: “Be ready to train hard.”
Black Jack last served in Korea after being activated there in 1963, about 10 years after the Korean War.