National Guard soldiers of the 2-108th cavalry squadron participated in the annual spur ride this weekend. The spur ride is a tradition that is unique to the cavalry. It’s a high-stress day and a half evolution that only a select few soldiers will ever complete. If they complete the grueling exercise, they will be awarded the coveted “silver spurs”.
The spurs and the tradition of the spur ride date back to the 1850s. Back then a cavalry trooper had to first master riding their horse without spurs. Only when they proved their mettle were they allowed to wear and use spurs.
Today, the cavalry soldiers ride armored Humvees instead of horses. They have several missions, and because of the diverse types of equipment and training, they are tasked with several very different missions both in Louisiana and overseas.
The 2-108th is the only cavalry unit in the Louisiana National Guard, and because of this, when disaster strikes here in the state, the 2-108th is the first unit the Governor calls for. Whether it be helicopter search and rescue, water rescues on inflatable boats, road and route clearance, or supply delivery, no job is too hard for these men.
“The soldiers really enjoy the in-state mission,” said Master Sergeant McKnight, “They train for it all the time.”
However, even though their primary mission is to serve the citizens in Louisiana, the unit has been called upon to deploy to war zones. Sergeant McKnight adds, “Even though they’re National Guard, they’re held to the exact same standards as any active duty unit is.”
What makes these soldiers even more incredible is that even though they are held to the same standards, they only get one weekend a month to train.
This weekend is unique. The spur ride is a year-long process, and not every soldier is eligible to participate. First, they have to be nominated by their fellow soldiers. Once a soldier is nominated, they must possess certain prerequisites: been in the unit for a year, been through the 2 week long annual training, be proficient in their weapons systems, have a passing physical fitness test and meet the army’s height and weight standards. If they meet all of those, they are then assigned a sponsor, who will work and train with the soldier for the year up until the spur ride.
When the candidates show up on Friday night, the “cadre” (non commissioned officer spur holders) immediately start testing the candidates. The candidates are marched to the drill yard where they are mercilessly “smoked” all night. When a soldier is smoked it means they are made to perform any number of physical exercises, such as push ups or sit ups. “The goal is to induce physical and mental stress,” said Sergeant Meador, a 22-year old cadre member. Although he is young, he carries himself with confidence.
After a tough night, the candidates are finally allowed to sleep at 3:45 am Saturday morning. The rest is short-lived though, because at 0500, they are woken up and the ruck march begins. The march is 12 miles and the candidates have only 4 hours to complete it. They must march in all of their combat gear-helmet, boots, vest, weapons-and a 35lb rucksack.
They aren’t marching on a road but through the woods and tank paths. It had just rained Friday, so the path was very muddy, and they had several hills and ruts to navigate. Twenty men started on the march Saturday morning, but only eight crossed the finished line.
As they approach the finish line they are greeted by their cadre. But this time the cadre have changed demeanor from drill instructor to big brother. They run out to the candidates and march the last few hundred yards with them. “I got mine, I want you to get yours!” shouts Sgt First Class Huff, a senior cadre.
Once the candidates cross the finish line, they collapse into the arms of their cadre, but they aren’t done. They are made to stand on a scale to ensure the candidate didn’t ditch any gear on the route. Many of the candidates are held up by their cadre. When the weigh-in is done they are sent to see the medic.
The medics ensure every candidate that finished the ruck march is fit to continue in the exercise. “You have extra socks?” one medic asks a candidate who is nursing sore feet. One of the candidates who collapsed at the finish line has a severely pulled groin. He wants to continue in the exercise, but the medic doesn’t feel like it’s a good idea. His friends help him up, but he would do anything to get those spurs.
Once the medic has cleared the candidates, they stand at attention while SFC Huff briefs them. The next and final part of the spur run consists of 13 separate stations. Each station is meant to test a different “basic warrior task”. They are made to disassemble and reassemble a variety of weapons, properly don their Chemical-Biological-Radiological-Nuclear (CBRN) protection gear, treat wounded soldiers, properly use the radio system, and use essential cavalry equipment.
One soldier is at the machine gun station, where he must prove his expertise servicing the M-240, a medium duty machine gun. He slides the barrel of the machine gun into the receiver, but the spring releases and the barrel shoots into the woods. He stares in disbelief, but his trance is soon broken by a member of the cadre screaming “Go get it!” and with that he sprints into the woods to look for the barrel.
At the CBRN suit station, as one soldier works to properly don the equipment, another soldier waits at attention. “What’s your favorite song?” a cadre member asks him. The soldier hesitated but before he can answer the cadre is on his face, “Sing it!” Without hesitation, the soldier starts to belt out a popular country western tune.
One of the candidates is standing by waiting to move to another station. While he was on his ruck march, he stopped to help an injured soldier. Even though the ruck march is timed, he was more concerned with his buddy. I asked him how it was going, he smiles and says, “It was a challenge.” The soldier is a medic in the HHT troop. In the civilian world he works for a lawn service but has hopes of one day working for the Bossier City Fire Department.
When asked about his favorite part of the Guard, without hesitation he answers, “The brotherhood.”
By far the hardest station in the round robin is the medic station. The medics, who fall under the HHT troop, take their job very seriously. The candidates are made to treat a mock casualty. The mock casualty has realistic looking wounds on him and is making a guttural breathing sound. The candidate struggles to find the wound on the casualty. The medic cadre are in his face yelling, “Hurry up! Your buddy is dying!” They aren’t being cruel, they are just trying to simulate the stress of combat as best as they can.
Simulating a high-stakes stressful situation is really what the spur ride is about. Command Master Sgt, McKnight explains that the whole point of the spur ride is to mentally prepare soldiers for deployment. “We don’t need anymore spurs in the unit,” he says, “These men aren’t just given these things, they have to earn them.” But once they earn their spurs, they are more confident having proven to themselves and their comrades that they can accomplish a hard mission. That makes them more prepared to deploy into combat zones.
The Commander of the 2-108th moves from station to station, quietly watching his soldiers. “It was a great event, and the cadre did an excellent job of running it.” This event is special to the commander, he feels that it’s an excellent way to build the ever important “esprit de corps” because the spur ride really sets the cavalry apart from other guard units, and other units in the army as a whole.
While every cavalry unit in the Army does a form of the spur ride, each unit designs and runs the event their own way. The commanders of the 2-108th are constantly changing the event to better train the soldiers for upcoming conflicts. “We are always updating our training to meet new threats,” said the executive officer of the 2-108th. The major is a full-time guard member and handles most of the unit’s administrative duties.
When asked what he’s doing after the spur ride, he chuckles and says, “We go back to work!” He’s enthusiastic and you can tell he’s proud to be a member of the Cav.
In fact, every soldier is. You can tell how special these soldiers are. The candidates are exhausted, but still fired up and ready to meet new challenges. The command staff is excited as they watch their young soldiers. The command staff is a very humble group, many of them have impressive resumes-some hold Ph.D.’s, one is an extreme athlete, several have accomplished careers in emergency services or law enforcement- but they hate talking about themselves.
Instead, they want to show off their men. Take for example Captain Boling, a man with an incredibly diverse civilian and military career, the holder of several graduate degrees and a doctorate. But the only thing he wants to talk about is his First Sergeant, Brandon Lee.
“First Sergeant Lee is a Shreveport Firefighter, and he was just on television competing on some reality show on the Discovery channel, you should talk to him!” First Sergeant Lee simply smiles and looks to the ground, avoiding the attention.
The candidates won’t know if they scored enough points to earn their spurs until the banquet that night. The spur banquet is a closed affair. Only spur holders within the 2-108th are allowed to attend.
For more information on the Louisiana National Guard you can visit their website at http://geauxguard.la.gov/