LAGHMAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan - After dusk Soldiers and Airmen, with the Kansas National Guard's 3/6 Kansas Cavalry Agribusiness Development Team-III, were restless as they awaited the start of the 'spur ride,' a tradition exclusive to cavalry units, here the evening of May 24.
The tradition of the spur ride and 'earning the spurs' goes back to the origin of the U.S. Cavalry, with new riders learning the ropes prior to donning the spurs that earmark a cavalryman.
The official start time would be 3:30 a.m., May 25, to take advantage of the cooler pre-dawn temperatures, but true to the Army spur ride tradition, the cadre, known as spur-holders, arrived at 9 p.m. the night before, calling forth the 'shavetails' to begin establishing their teams.
The term 'shavetail' refers to their assigned horse having its tail hair cut close, visible at a distance and serving the dual purpose of identifying the novice riders and marking their time. There was an understanding that by the time the horse's hair grows to a full tail, both rider and mount will have learned the core skills of cavalry movement, orders and tactics necessary to operate within a horse-mounted military unit.
Participants donned their gear and team leaders raced to fulfill their first assignments - gather three service members of higher rank. Candidates were required to keep certain items on them. If they returned without these mandatory items, they would "pay" for it.
Service members without a camel back found themselves carrying a series of water bottles tied together with parachute rigging cord. No watch? A wall clock hung around their necks as a reminder of the importance of keeping track of time.
The boisterous cadre elicited laughs from all as they singled out candidates for infractions, good-naturedly berating the unprepared and making a ruckus as the shavetails looked anywhere but in the eyes of the cadre, just as they had been instructed.
At about 11 p.m. the night before the event, the spur holders told the shavetails to go to bed, as the participants would need their rest for the early morning start and long day ahead.
“Back to your bunks!” ordered the spur holders.
Modern times have seen the retirement of the horse, but not the pride or traditions. Hooves have been replaced with wheels, armor tracks and rotor blades; the bugle call to "Charge!" replaced by radio-borne affirmatives. However, the tether to the cavalry of old can be seen in the spurs, Stetsons, and sabers Soldiers traditionally wear today for formal armor and cavalry functions, and it is primarily through spur ride events that Soldiers earn the honor of wearing the Stetsons and spurs.
At 3 a.m., the shavetails poured from their living areas into the predawn darkness into the teams they formed the night before. The cadre rearranged the teams, dictating the rosters.
“The whole time it reminded me of basic training, but this time I got to talk back,” said Army Spc. Jason Cook, a truck crewman with the ADT.
The exchanges between the spur holder cadre and the candidates, seeking to earn their spurs, maintained its tempo and humor as the shavetails mustered for their next task - a two mile ruck march called the "hump-walk."
The teams marched around the perimeter of Forward Observation Base Mehtar Lam, past the living areas, firing range, maintenance bays, and airfield.
Each of the seven teams split to performance stations: six static stations with additional ruck march iterations serving as the seventh station. During the spur ride, the cadre graded the candidates on weapons, maintenance, emergency resupply, marksmanship, medical and a written exam on cavalry history. Candidates traversed two-mile ruck marches between each station.
Teams earned more points for faster march times, and the timer only stopped when last member crossed the finish line.
“It was good for the simple fact that so many guys haven’t seen a traditional spur ride ….,” said Army Master Sgt. Michael L. Crist, a personnel officer for the ADT. “The biggest thing is [if the service members can] think outside the box with their skill sets."
The first casualties of the spur ride were a few "extra" team members, soft-boiled eggs each team was required to name, protect and carry throughout the spur ride. By the end of the day, three eggs were lost, and in the heat, fried to perfection.
Significant to this particular spur ride, despite being in a combat zone, was the entry of Air Force Senior Airman Melissa Hidalgo, a medic attached to the ADT. Female spur holders are rare, and Air Force spur holders even more so.
Hidalgo may be the first female Kansas Air Guard spur holder, said Crist and Army Col. Howard E. Wheeler, commander of the ADT.
“It was an honor to … partake in the spur ride,” Hidalgo said. “To find out I’m the first female Kansas Air Guardsman to receive spurs, just brings it closer to home.”
The competition remained fierce, with the ultimate prize of having Wheeler pay for the winning team's Stetsons.
In the end, Team Sweets prevailed. The team members were Army Spc. Richard Tyson Kane, a truck crewman; Army Staff Sgt. Timothy Schloetzer, a truck commander; and Army Sgt. Chase Taylor, a gunner, all with the ADT. The clincher for Team Sweets was their quick ruck march times, as they were the only team to earn all available points in that category.
With the conclusion of the spur ride, the teams retired to their hooches to rest and refit for the traditional dinner. The candidates capped their day serving a meal to the cadre and current spur-holders, and the good-natured jibes, an undercurrent of the event, continued. Each team was prompted to sing the team theme song they'd sung numerous times that day, to the obvious delight of the gathered crowd and chagrin of the team. Everyone smiled as the cadre got their final ribbing in and the candidates knew the day was concluding, their spurs all but on their boots.
Twenty-seven members of the ADT, from specialists to lieutenant colonels, male and female alike, earned their spurs that day.
Two soldiers earned special recognition. Army Sgt. Paul Olson, a truck gunner for the ADT, was chosen as most motivated by his peers, while Army Spc. Jason Cook, also a truck gunner, was chosen as most motivated by the cadre. The Soldiers received a special plaque commemorating their achievement.
The pride and traditions of the U.S. Army Cavalry will carry on in the 3/6 Kansas Cavalry and though the hoofed thunder of a mounted charge may never again be heard on the modern battlefield, it will echo forever in the hearts and minds of the cavalrymen anointed here.