BRAGG, N.C. - It would be perfectly all right with Lt. Col. Blake
Ortner if people do not compare apples with watermelons when they
talk about how a historic Virginia Army National Guard infantry outfit
is again training to go to war.
We are talking about the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment from
Winchester, Va., that is preparing to deploy to Afghanistan sometime
this summer to spend a year helping to fight the global war against
terrorism. Those are the apples.
We are talking about the same 116th Regiment which paid a heavy price
in blood, sweat and tears while fighting its way onto Omaha Beach
in Normandy, France, during the first two waves of the great D-Day
invasion on June 6, 1944. Those are the watermelons.
Ortner, the 3rd Battalion commander, and the 570 Guard Soldiers he
has led since September 2002 are fully aware of their regiment's place
in U.S. military history.
But Ortner likes to keep things in perspective. He knows there is
a big difference between a single battalion taking part in Operation
Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and the entire regiment being at the
point of one of the spears that defined Operation Overlord, the greatest
invasion the world had ever seen.
"I really find it difficult to compare what we're getting ready
to do to D-Day," Ortner said here in early April as his Soldiers
were training to serve in a country, where U.S. troops have been seeking
out terrorists and weapons caches following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks
against this nation.
"The most extreme experience a human being can go through is
being a combat infantryman, and nowhere in World War II was the combat
more extreme than at Omaha in the early morning hours of June 6,"
wrote the late historian Stephen Ambrose in his riveting, bestselling
"The 116th Regiment and the 5th Ranger Battalion ... experienced
war at its most horrible, demanding and challenging."
German defenders virtually wiped out isolated Company A of Bedford,
Va., in 15 minutes. Wrote Ambrose: "Of the 200-plus men of the
company, only a couple of dozen survived, and virtually all of them
Other Soldiers in the 116th, however, survived the German's deadly
fire to help secure the beachhead and begin the liberation of France
World War II veterans and others interested in history will commemorate
the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings at Normandy in June.
"I think we are so dwarfed in comparison to what they did when
they landed on the beaches," Ortner said. "So, I think [we're]
just trying to live up to the honor that they accomplished and to
do the best we can to show the same kind of pride and the same kind
of duty that they showed when they landed on those beaches in France."
There is plenty to live up to - personally, historically and professionally.
For example, Ortner's deceased father, Henry Ortner, was an Army Air
Corps crewman on one of the C-47 transports that dropped 82nd Airborne
Division paratroopers behind German lines during the night before
the June 6 invasion began.
There's also Bosnia and Cuba ... and Bull Run.
About 147 members of the 116th, which is part of the Army Guard's
29th Infantry Division, spent the winter of 1997-98 in Bosnia-Herzegovina
guarding a bridge over the Sava River. They served with Co. C, from
Leesburg, Va., which is part of the same 3rd Battalion that is now
preparing to deploy to Afghanistan.
Members of the 2nd Battalion guarded suspected terrorists from Afghanistan
at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba from November 2002 to October
Bull Run? That's where the 116th earned its nickname as the "Stonewall
Brigade" while enduring its baptism of fire during the first
major land battle of the Civil War on July 21, 1861.
Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson commanded the Confederate
brigade from Virginia that gained immortality when Gen. Barnard Bee,
another Southern general, said: "Yonder stands Jackson like a
stone wall; let's go to his assistance."
Bull Run. Omaha Beach. Bosnia. Cuba. All are part of the 116th Infantry
Regiment's legacy that the 3rd Battalion's Soldiers are determined
to honor and uphold as they train here, and at Fort Polk, La., for
two weeks in June, to serve in Afghanistan.
They are, for the most part, young men who are far more focused on
this new mission than they are on their regiment's past.
"Afghanistan is a better mission for us. We're light infantry.
We don't deal well with tanks, but we could go anywhere we're needed,"
said Ortner after watching his 60mm mortar teams conduct a protective
fire drill with live rounds at a Fort Bragg range.
For many, serving in a combat zone seems to be the right thing to
"I used to play G.I. Joe in the woods when I was growing up,
but I never really thought about joining the military. September 11th
motivated me to join the Guard," said Spc. Oscar Martinez, 20,
who put on hold his college education plans and his hopes to go to
helicopter flight school when his infantry unit was called up on March
"I joined when I was still in high school. I knew there was a
likelihood I would be deployed," Martinez added. "Everyone
here knew there was a chance we'd have to go, and everyone in my platoon
is totally motivated."
Many, including 22-year-old Spc. Daniel Laurion, are already seasoned
Soldiers even though they belong to the Guard.
"This will be my second overseas deployment. I spent 10 months
at Guantanamo Bay," said Laurion, who carries an M-249 Squad
Automatic Weapon as comfortably as many men his age carry a backpack.
"I've been in the Guard for four and a half years. I've been
on active duty for three of them. I'm getting all of it I can."
Spc. Sheraz Khalid, 25, is getting his chance to return to the part
of the world that he knows better than most of his fellow Soldiers.
He was born in Pakistan, near the Indian border. He came to America
with his parents and a younger sister when he was 11. He became a
U.S. citizen in 2001.
He has been back to Pakistan several times, and he married his wife
Sadia there in 2001. He has been in the active Army and the Guard
for eight years. Now he is a medic who is prepared to leave his wife
and 16-month-old son in Virginia to help defend his American homeland.
Khalid is anticipating the chance to help his comrades apply the cultural
and linguistic lessons they are learning in classrooms to a part of
the world they know little about.
"It's going to be different," he predicted. "You have
to respect the differences in the culture. You don't just walk up
to a woman and start talking to her. You have to ask her father or
her husband for permission first.
"We're going there to help them, not to make them fear us or
show disrespect to them," Khalid added.
"I've never been to Afghanistan, but I'm a Soldier. I've got
to go where they send me," he said. "I was born in Pakistan,
but now I'm an American."