By Shane Smith, El Reno Tribune
Following the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, the Army Green Berets charged into Afghanistan and began America’s war on terror – on the backs of horses.
Due to the tight spaces, harsh conditions and other factors, it was a better and easier strategy to use horses rather than modern day fighting machinery. For the first time since World War II, horse and man were once again working together in combat to defend our country.
It’s an old tradition. For as long as humankind has known horses, the animals have been our partners in innumerable ventures, both military and humanitarian. Today, even though horses aren’t used to aid soldiers as much as they were in the past, the tradition is still carried proudly with the United States Cavalry Association.
At Historic Fort Reno, the various units of the association competed in the 2018 Bivouac and National Cavalry Competition, which runs through Saturday. Though these horses haven’t been in combat, it’s clear that they very well could if the need arose.
Blank rounds are fired from Civil War era weapons. Horse and rider move as one across the fields with impressive speed and agility. The crowd watches, remembering from their history books how much the equines have helped our people over the centuries. And the soldiers, most of them on active duty, beam proud smiles as they engage in a close, almost brotherly, relationship with the horses.
“It’s the best job in the military,” said First Sgt. Jason Therkelson, a combat engineer from the Fort Riley unit in Kansas. “It’s a friendly competition between other active duty units as well as civilian units. It’s fun to compete. We each have a good camaraderie, but we didn’t all just come to the Army to ride horses. There are people of different skills and careers, including truck drivers and Abrams tank drivers. After the officers ride in the cavalry for two years, they go back out into their various career fields in the military.”
Therkelson is retiring at the end of the year, and he will be replaced by First Sgt. Dale Siebert, who has also loved and respected the horses for many years.
“Certain divisions of the military still get trained on cavalry matters,” said Siebert. “They get trained on packing the equipment on horses. There’s a plethora of trainers out here competing, and some civilians as well.”
Most of the riders, both from the military and civilian units, wear the authentic uniforms of officers from ages past, including the Civil War and the Indian Wars. These uniforms, along with many items in use by the association, aren’t readily available within the U.S. Army, and it’s up to the different units to help each other out with some of the supplies and equipment.
“Besides the training, everyone is here sharing their knowledge,” said Siebert. “The leadership from each Army unit all get together and help each other with solutions to our horse-related problems. A lot of the stuff we need isn’t in the Army’s supply list anymore, so we have to help each other go out and resource that ourselves.”
The soldiers of the cavalry feel privileged to carry on the tradition, and they treat all their missions and competitions with a deep, history-minded reverence.
“We’re here to keep the tradition and the heritage alive,” said Joe Greer of Fort Carson.
“As far as keeping cavalry traditions alive and supporting mounted military units, the association is just amazing,” said Jon Rumsey, a former soldier out of Fort Carson who now owns his own black Angus ranch and trains the cavalry in Montana. “Everyone in the association goes out of their way to help these military units that have little to no funding all year long.”
Rather than engaging with these animals in real combat, the soldiers work with the horses on missions that teach the public, and especially children, the history and the honor of the Armed Forces.
“The units all do the same types of missions,” said Gerald Stuck, chief of the Fort Sill Field Artillery Half Section. “We go out into public affairs like parades and school events. We talk to kids about the history of the unit and talk about what Veterans Day means.”
The units all respect and admire each other, but there’s still a lot of competing going on. After all, each rider is riding for the national championship.
“It’s got a competitive edge, but it’s still a friendly competition,” said Therkelson.
“There’s a lot of camaraderie throughout all the different units,” said Siebert. “We might pick on each other for fun, but we still come together for the horses.”
The story of the U.S. Army is a difficult but beautiful chapter of American history. Honor, sacrifice, glory and love are common words when describing the military – and they are all accurate. Still, much of its history wouldn’t be possible without the horses. They have contributed so much to our military and our society, and it doesn’t seem likely that America will ever stop honoring both the horses and their riders. Every time Therkelson says that being in the Cavalry Association is the best job in the military, his fellow soldiers proudly agree with him.
“We’re telling the overall story of the Army through different time periods,” said Therkelson. “We have a WWII vet out here, and it makes him and everyone else happy to see the tradition kept alive.”
Though the competition is over, Historic Fort Reno is a place we can always visit to honor the military and learn about their sacrifice. Artifacts from the Civil War and the two World Wars grace the walls and shelves of both the Fort Reno Museum and the Cavalry Museum. The Post Cemetery is both frightening and awe-inspiring, and the chapel stands to remind us that these were all people who looked to the Highest Power for strength.
Upon entering these buildings, or anywhere else on the grounds, visitors are transported back in time through their imaginations. They realize that in the very spot they stand, a soldier from another era once stood tall with duty and determination.
“History is dying,” said Wendy Ogden, director and museum curator for Historic Fort Reno. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone. The efforts to keep history alive and continue to educate people – that’s what everything out here is all about.”