Kentucky Soldiers become honorary Cavalry members in Afghanistan

Story and photos by Spc. John Rader, 149th VCC Unit Public Affairs Historian Representative

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Staff Sgt. Andy Wiglesworth with the 149th Vertical Construction Company is presented the Order of the Combat Spur by Col. Robert Whittle Jr., commander of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, Aug. 4, 2013.  (Photo courtesy of 2/1 Cavalry)

Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan — In June, the Soldiers of the 149th Vertical Construction Company were tasked with a very high priority construction mission at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan.  The engineers were tasked with constructing a two story tactical operation command center for the 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, known as the “Black Jack” Brigade that was due to arrive in Afghanistan during the summer. The Guardsmen were very familiar with the build as it mirrors the office space they constructed for their own operations area that they share with the 122nd Engineer Battalion from the South Carolina National Guard.

The task was assigned to 1st Platoon with Warrant Officer Jacob Lewis at the helm as the officer in charge of construction. The build took two months to complete and houses 45 offices, two large conference rooms, and two large command centers.

Check out all the photos of the ceremony on the “Black Jack” Brigade’s Facebook page, here.

Daily updates to the project were passed up the chain of command so the 149th leadership, the 122nd Engineers, the 555 Engineer Brigade, the 101st Airborne Division, and the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command (IJC) can track the progress of the construction.  All eyes in the Regional Command East Territory were on the 149th as each phase of the project came closer to completion.

With the experience of one similar build completed by 3rd Platoon with Warrant Officer Robert Wiota as the officer in charge of construction, the unit already has a notch in their belt for this particular build. Construction began and continued without any glitches or issues arising. Each phase of the project rolled along flawlessly as the 149th ran 24-hour operations made up of  1st, 2nd, and 3rd shifts that maneuvered seven days a week. With the first 30 days complete, the Soldiers were already days ahead of schedule and their progress was noted by everyone in their chain of command.

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Soldiers of the 149th Vertical Construction Company put the final touches on a table in the shape of the 1st Cavalry Division patch at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, July, 2013. 149th Soldiers wanted to add a personal touch to the construction and came up with the idea for the table to honor the cavalry.  (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Spc. John Rader)

“I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again, the 149th VCC is the flagship company of this battalion,” said Lt. Col. Victor Brown, commander of the 122nd. “This company continues to amaze me.”

With more and more of the smaller operating bases in Afghanistan closing or decreasing in size, Bagram is growing as more troops arrive there to begin or continue operations from the still thriving air field. With the 1st Cavalry Division arriving, Bagram is the right choice for such a large outfit that will operate in every Regional Command Territory in theater, making it imperative to have command centers to occupy upon the arrival of their main body.

“The work and sweat that these troops put into this project is noted by not only me, but everyone up the chain,” explained Lewis. “I couldn’t ask for a better group of soldiers. They pay attention to every detail, catch things that I haven’t seen yet, and fix it right away without being told.”

Since the build is designed to not be a permanent fixture, the two story structure is constructed under a large area maintenance shelter and uses only two key elements of the vertical construction trade- carpentry and electrical work.

“I give all the troops in my squad the ability to learn as we go along,”  said 149th’s Staff Sgt. Steven Willoughby, 2nd Squad Leader.  “We try not to rush things for two reasons. One reason we don’t, is so that the soldiers that are not too familiar with this type of work can get a hands-on approach to learning the skill. The second reason is to ensure quality of the craftsmanship. We want to present an excellent product to the 2/1 Cavalry when they arrive.”

“Our name will be attached to the quality of this structure long after we leave and have done our part,” he said.

On July 22nd 2013, the construction project assigned to the 149th Vertical Construction Company was marked complete, ready to be presented to Col. Robert Whittle Jr. and his staff  of the 2/1 Cavalry that will operate out of the structure. Preparing for the walk-through,  Lewis instructed 1st Platoon to put the finishing touches on a side project to add a unique and personal touch for both the engineers of the 149th and the Troopers of the 2/1 Cavalry.

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Soldiers of the 149th Vertical Construction Company present a large wooden table in the shape of the 1st Cavalry Division patch to Col. Robert Whittle Jr., commander of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Div., at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, July 22, 2013. Whittle said the table will go wherever the unit goes, and will return with them to the U.S. at Fort Hood, Texas.  (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Spc. John Rader)

“I sent back plans to Kentucky and had them drawn up and send back to me for this surprise side project,” said Lewis.  “All the Soldiers involved were on board with this addition to our construction task and pitched in when and where they could. Most of my guys stayed long after their shift had ended to work on this and it really is the icing on the cake.”

As the walk through comes to an end, Chief Lewis directed his leadership to the last conference room in the building that had not been seen yet. The door opens to find all the 149th, 1st Platoon engineers standing behind a conference table that was built with that personal touch. The table is in the shape of the calvary patch and adorns all the likeness of the very recognizable yellow shield that is established as the symbol of the United States Calvary.

“I don’t know what to say here… what you all did here is amazing. I’m literally at a loss for words,” said Whittle. “I will make sure we take this table wherever we go, and when we get back home, I will make sure we hang this up at our headquarters in Fort Hood.”

To show the gratitude of the “Black Jack” Brigade to the 149th Soldiers that worked day in and day out on the construction, a surprise ceremony was held to induct those Soldiers into the “Order of the Combat Spurs.”  From that day forth, the 2/1 Calvary Division recognizes the Soldiers of the 149th by issuing this award that authorizes the troops that are given the prestigious honor to wear the Calvary Stetson and Combat Spurs in noted situations as honorary members of the Calvary.

The tradition of the Order dates back to medieval times and roots itself in knighthood, where the awarding of spurs symbolized entry and ranks into the fraternity of mounted warriors. Usually the squire aspiring to knighthood would complete some tasks or deeds to prove his worth on the battlefield. Under these criteria, the 149th Soldiers performed such tasks and were awarded the esteemed honor.

“This is really an amazing award to take home,” said Sgt. Gary Forsyth, of the 149th.  “It’s an award that not every Soldier has the opportunity to obtain, especially since we’re engineers, and now, an honorary part of the Calvary community.”

“Everyone worked really hard on this project and we have been awarded to a great extent for our hard work,” continued Forsyth.  “I couldn’t be happier with the construction process and how the build turned out.”

The Kentucky Guardsmen added this to their long list of accomplishments while in theater. With just a few more months left in Afghanistan; the engineering projects in Bagram and all across Regional Command East and North Territories will continue.

“We have some great projects in front of us in the coming months and I couldn’t be more proud of these Soldiers,” said 149th Commander, Capt. Adam Evans. “They have worked on so many projects, completed some very difficult task, and always seem to rise to the occasion to get the job done with a touch of excellence.”

“It’s the little recognitions like this that keeps these troops going day in and day out. We will be back in Kentucky in just a few short months and we will have plenty of stories for our families.”

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