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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution November 19, 2006

Griffin's Echo Troop hangs up its spurs

Guard cavalry unit to be dismantled

By Moni Basu

Echo Troop survived its tour of Iraq but not the aftermath.

The Georgia Army National Guard's only cavalry troop — proud and steeped in tradition, complete with legendary Stetson hats and shiny brass spurs on their boots — will stop riding soon. Soldiers are flying their battle flag and unit colors for the last time at the armory in Griffin during this weekend's drill.

Everyone had anticipated the deactivation — news of the Army's restructuring plans circulated while Georgia's citizen soldiers were still in Iraq. But that did not make it any easier.

"I joined the Guard to be a cavalry scout," said Spc. Charles Flowers, a ground maintenance mechanic with Delta Air Lines. "They may not allow me to wear my Stetson and spurs after this, but deep down we will always be Echo Troop."

Flowers said no other military branch has the mystique of the mounted warriors who won the West for America, marched to the old Irish tune "Garry Owen" and read aloud the ballad of "Fiddler's Green" to remember the fallen.

"We've been around since war really began," Flowers said. "They made movies about us. We are proud to have earned the right to wear those spurs and Stetsons. It's going to be very sad."

To be disassembled is especially emotional for a group of 180 men who endured a tough year together on the battlefield. Emotional, too, for Griffin, a small Georgia town that embraced the men who represented its citizenry.

First Sgt. Steve Jones, a lifelong Griffin resident, said he "feels sick" when he thinks about it.

"This unit has always been special," he said. "It feels like someone's ripping your heart out."

Retired Col. Leonid Kondratiuk, a former National Guard Bureau historian who is now the director of the Massachusetts National Guard Museum and Archives, said the breakup of the troop is especially hard for the soldiers who spent a year together on the battlefields of Iraq.

"It's like saying, 'Thanks for your service, but your unit is being deactivated.' It can feel like a slap in the face," said Kondratiuk, himself a former cavalryman who co-wrote a 1995 book on U.S. cavalry regiments.

Jones pointed to a Troop E flag he had made in Iraq that is propped against the wall behind his old, metal desk.

"As long as I'm here, that's flying," said Jones, who has been in the Guard 28 years and plans to retire before an infantry company moves in. "We are unique in what we do. For most of my guys, it will be a big adjustment."

Retiring colors

Cavalry troops used to ride horses. In modern times, they performed their scouting missions in Humvees, tanks and armored personnel carriers. Now, most of those soldiers will become infantrymen.

The National Guard is deactivating Troop E of the 108th Cavalry Regiment, one of the last standing separate heavy cavalry troops, as part of the Army's restructuring of the 48th Infantry Brigade.

After it returned from a year in Iraq in May, the brigade began its transformation from a heavy mechanized unit to a lighter, more mobile one. The 48th's current armor battalion will become a reconnaissance squadron and assume some of the cavalry troop's roles.

Even though Troop E will continue to drill in Griffin until its soldiers are assigned to new units, the casing of the troop's colors this weekend heralded the end of an era.

The official yellow battle flag and the red and white cavalry insignia were replaced by the flags of the incoming unit.

Some Echo Troop soldiers will stay with the new company in Griffin. Some plan to join another infantry company in nearby Newnan. For others, Jones said, the thought of not being a cavalryman reinforced retirement plans.

"It's inevitable," said Capt. John Alderman IV about the restructuring plans. "We understand that, intellectually. But a lot of the guys are upset and unhappy about it. This is the unit that we love.

"We just went to war under that flag," said Alderman, who is relinquishing his command. "There's a lot of pretty strong feelings."

Hard for survivors

In Iraq, Echo Troop soldiers endured harsh conditions, spending the first six months of the deployment living in rustic camps in Mahmudiyah, Yusufiyah and Lutifiyah, towns south of Baghdad in a restive area known as the Triangle of Death. Later, the troop was moved to Tallil Air Base in the south and to Camp Anaconda north of Baghdad, where they provided security for supply convoys.

The troop lost three soldiers in Iraq — Sgt. Mike Stokely, Staff Sgt. Bobby Hollar and Sgt. George Draughn. Having the flag that flew at their memorial services folded up is hard for the families of the fallen.

"It is all irony to me that the troop that he went to war with and died with will cease to exist now that he is no longer with them," said Hollar's widow, Amanda, who has a 108th flag on her car as well as one at home. She even got her stomach tattooed with her husband's name through cavalry sabres to pay her respects. "It is somewhat sad to me that the cav colors will no longer fly."

The people of Griffin have also grown accustomed to a cavalry troop in their midst.

According to the military watchdog organization Globalsecurity.org: "The Spalding Grays was the first unit from Spalding County to be mustered into the Confederate Army. The Spalding Grays have continued through the years as a unit of the Georgia National Guard serving in war and peace, military and civilian emergencies. Today the Grays serve as Troop E 108 Cavalry."

The Troop E soldiers built contacts in the community and participated in events. Soldiers even judged Ranger competitions held by the ROTC programs at local schools. Echo Troop flew the city's flag in its Iraq headquarters just as the 108th flag was posted in a city courtroom during the deployment.

Another loss for town

The incoming unit at the Griffin armory will have to start all over.

So will the community, but city councilwoman and former Mayor Joanne Todd likened it to another loss this small town of 24,000 people has endured: the shuttering of textile mills.

"When we lost the textile industry, we thought we might dry up," said Todd, whose son, Sgt. 1st Class Richard Todd, serves in Echo Troop. "But we learned to shift gears and carry on."

Todd said Griffin as a community shows a high level of patriotism. She said residents will mourn the loss of the cavalrymen but show just as much support for the new unit.

A Griffin park teeming with tall oaks and maples honors the veterans of all of America's wars. Yellow ribbons lined the streets the entire time that Echo Troop was gone. An unusually big crowd stood out in May drizzle to welcome their boys back home.

Schoolchildren at Crescent Elementary School were pen pals with Hollar — who was a postal carrier and understood the magic of mail from a distant land — until the day he died.

"It is a huge honor to have had the 108th Cavalry call Griffin their home," said teacher Katie Cobb. "I can't ride by [the armory] without tearing up. It serves as a constant reminder as to the price of my freedom."

Richard Todd said his soldiers would move on to newer and better roles. Change, he said, is always good. Perhaps the motto listed on a Web page devoted to Echo Troop sums it all up: "Come What Will."

Copyright 2006, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution