Some soldiers get a slap in the face with a raw steak and the phrase “spur maggot” hurled at them when they join the cavalry. They get that treatment until they demonstrate they belong with their fellow cavalrymen by “earning their spurs” in the field.
Others prove their mettle through demanding physical endurance tests interspersed with combat drills. It’s tough, and it lacks the hazing that some cavalrymen love and loathe when they look back at their time in uniform.
Maj. Adam Latham of Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment got the steak as a young lieutenant. He prefers the combat tests now that he has the rank and responsibility to shape training for hundreds of soldiers.
“I don’t personally buy into the idea that hazing makes you a better soldier,” said Latham, the squadron’s executive officer. “It doesn’t make a cohesive unit. What makes a cohesive unit is hard training and being competent at your jobs together.”
His squadron cut most of the hazing from an Army rite of passage last week that initiates junior soldiers into the traditions and history of the cavalry. Instead of in-your-face sergeants and countless pushups, the squadron put its troops through the ringer of a soggy, two-day “spur ride” in the woods near Yelm.
It marked their first significant exercise in the field since the squadron returned from Afghanistan in December, signaling that the soldiers have finished their recuperation time and can begin training for new challenges in a changing Army.
“I think they are happy to get out and do some no-kidding training” after months of administrative work, said Command Sgt. Maj. Sean Mayo, the squadron’s senior enlisted soldier.
Spur rides are a custom that harkens back to the days when Army scouts on horseback stealthily scoped out enemy lines. Traditions matter to this group. Its soldiers still wear Stetson hats and spurs to formal events, paying homage to their predecessors.
Soldiers “earned the spurs” last week if they passed at least five of six combat drills, completed an overnight march and answered a slate of questions about the squadron’s history.
Success brought the right to wear the silver spurs that signify their place in an Army cavalry unit. If they failed, they could try again next time.
“Pass another test, get another shiny thing to wear,” said Spc. Josh Matzdorf, 22, who kept his cool through the combat drills.
In the meantime, cavalry leaders roving the woods would get a sense of what their soldiers have to work on in the months ahead as the unit prepares for major exercises that will put it under the leadership of the Pentagon’s Pacific Command. It is not expecting to go to Afghanistan again.
The trek began in the early hours of June 26 when cavalrymen rousted themselves at 2 a.m. to prepare for a mandatory formation an hour later. They broke into eight-soldier groups led by senior sergeants who would grade them and nudge them in the right direction if they faltered.
The first teams got out in the woods about 8 a.m. and had to find their way to six test sites using maps and unmarked trails.
Sgt. James Lopez saw the eight soldiers on his team misread their map and make a wrong turn long before they broke left when they should have marched right. He let them keep walking until they started to sweat from their early morning hike and the 60-pound rucksacks on their backs.
“We’re going to put a little pressure on them,” said Lopez, 26, of Tacoma, as he trailed his charges.
Many of the young cavalrymen were rusty, making mistakes reading maps or forgetting the proper steps soldiers take to cover themselves while approaching enemy fire. Most of them got a chance to correct their errors.
Some assignments, however, were considered critical and would result in immediate failure, such as taking too long to put on a gas mask in a chemical warfare scenario.
“Hands are bound! Hands are bound even though you want to help so much,” said Staff Sgt. Cory Williams, a senior soldier who constantly fought the urge to prevent the soldiers under his watch from slipping up.
“They do make mistakes, but it’s my nature to try to help them succeed,” said Williams, 30, of Puyallup. “You have to let them fail to succeed.”
Some of the newest soldiers fared the best on the tests. Pfc. Austin Fricks, 18, for example, joined the cavalry unit fresh out of his initial Army training in May. With recent cavalry schooling behind him, Fricks sailed through the tests.
Morale lifted and fell through the day as the slog caught up with the troops.
“It’s all good, except my age,” shouted spur candidate Sgt. Jeong Moon, 43.
“Keep pushing, it’s all in your head,” replied fellow candidate Sgt. Kyle Norden, who at 23 had an easier time handling the march.
Half of Lopez’s group failed a weapons test in which they had to disassemble and reassemble two guns under the watchful eye of an infantry expert. They psyched themselves out going into the weapons tent because they knew it would be the most challenging of the drills.
“If I fail one, it’s going to be this,” said Norden, who otherwise showed an optimistic spirit through the march. His prediction proved true.
Some of the recent Afghanistan veterans found the tests they faced impractical compared with what they experienced at war. In that sense, training with practice rounds running into impossible scenarios does not live up to the expectations of young men who have accomplished the real thing. They’re still adjusting to life after a combat tour.
“This is my first training I’ve ever been to,” said Afghanistan veteran Spc. Justin Woods, 21. The Army sent him overseas with the 1-14 almost immediately after he finished basic training.
Lopez has participated in four spur rides during his cavalry career. He characterized the previous ones as endurance tests broken up by mandatory pushups. He said he preferred the focus on Army fundamentals he observed in his team last week. All together, 239 of the squadron’s 310 candidates earned their spurs.
What Lopez saw gave him a plan to coordinate his soldiers’ training in the days ahead.
“They say, ‘I know these fundamentals.’ Well apparently they don’t,” he said. “It’s always good to go back to the basics.”
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646