By Sgt. Leejay Lockhart (101st Airborne)June 24, 2013
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. - The U.S. Army just marked its 238th birthday and in its centuries of existence, it has developed a strong tradition of service and sacrifice for the nation. It is fairly unique in that it is an organization of organizations, each having their own history, accolades and traditions that contribute to the greater whole. Streamers of battles won, campaigns fought and accomplishments earned crown unit flags with a mane of colors. Those strands of cloth are one way to both respect the valor of earlier Soldiers and a way to pass down unit traditions and ideals.
In an office close to a fine example of a richly adorned unit flag, is a desk with two old, slightly tattered, somewhat worn branch insignias. Despite their appearance, these castles are well cared for, because for approximately fifty years, outgoing commanders of the 326th Engineer Battalion (Air Assault), 101st Sustainment Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), have left them behind with a note for the incoming battalion commander. While it's unknown if these are the originals, or a replacement set, it doesn't matter. What is important is they connect the commander to those who have served in the position before him.
"…I wear them with pride knowing the men before me wore the same simple castle with the '326' atop of them," said Phillip J. Borders, the current battalion commander. He goes on to add that at least three former commanders went on to become generals.
He serves with the senior enlisted member of the battalion, Ramon M. Fisher, who as command sergeant major of the battalion has the traditional responsibility of maintaining the battalion colors. These two men are the caretakers of the unit for both its symbols and its Soldiers. They are uniquely qualified to serve as stewards for the 326th Engineer Battalion "Sapper Eagles" and all of its traditions.
Both of these men served in the battalion before. Both are already members of the Sapper Eagle family. Both men are finally home.
Borders, now a lieutenant colonel, started his military career after graduating from the University of Kansas in 1996. He came to the battalion and served in a variety of positions including platoon leader, company executive officer, training officer and battalion adjutant as a young officer. Fisher started in the Iowa National Guard before going active duty. He finally ended up in the battalion in 1997 as a team leader.
They spent their early days in the battalion preparing for a division readiness force mission that required them to work closely with the infantry. It is now their responsibility as leadership to take what the unit taught them years ago and instill those lessons into their Soldiers. By mastering the fundamentals of being an engineer, by staying adaptable, by living up to what makes the Sapper Eagles great historically, they hope to lead the unit into a bright future.
Borders said he was "humbled and honored" to come back.
"I didn't think it was possible to come back to an organization where I've been," said Fisher. "Coming back here really is a blessing."
They seek to maintain the high standards set by a long line of predecessors and part of the way they do that is by continuing the unit's traditions.
Some of those traditions are simple such as wearing red battalion t-shirts during special physical training events. Yet, Fisher said that memories of a red mass of engineers during a division run have stuck with him through the years. Others, such as the "Sapper Blast," an all day officer initiation event are more involved but all of the traditions help Soldiers feel like they belong to something special.
That feeling of belonging to a special unit goes all the way to the top.
"This has always been a high performing battalion throughout history all the way back to the beaches of Normandy," said Borders. "The standards of training, the standards of discipline, the standards of fitness and just the pure team work of what exists in this battalion and in this division in my humble opinion are second to none in the Army."
"There's no question that this is one of the top engineer battalions in the Army," said Fisher. "This is the place to be."
The men felt that their history with the unit and its traditions gives them an advantage as they guide the unit through a time of difficult transitions. They have a force accustomed to set deployments to a warzone and they have to change it back to one ready to deploy anywhere, anytime and do anything as part of the global response force. Complicating that challenge is the fiscal uncertainty that has became a fact a life for the military.
"…they are looking for leaders that have been there before that have that experience to prepare our Soldiers in the future," said Borders. "That's a potential reason that we're back here. Our senior leaders acknowledge that and have done that for the organization and not for us."
As they continue to prepare and train their unit, they remind their subordinates to master the fundamentals and to continuously learn from those around you. They tell junior leaders to stay involved with their Soldiers.
"I was a sponge, I was sucking it all in," said Fisher. "I had great leaders."
"It's the same thing I tell my lieutenants now," said Borders. "Your first job is to learn."
However, they face challenges that will take time, effort and leadership to overcome.
"We've been at war for 12 years and a lot of those key skills we expect our junior leaders to understand have atrophied over those 12 years," said Borders. "We need to go back and help our junior leaders."
Both said it would take focus on mastering basic competencies for Soldiers and junior leaders. They said they learned the most as Soldiers by training with the infantry. Impressing the infantry during training enough that they accepted the engineers as one of their own was a proud moment for Fisher. Both said they look forward to having new opportunities to train their Soldiers with the infantry.
"In a fiscally constrained environment being a light engineer in a light infantry division, it doesn't take much to train," said Borders. "It takes a little bit of ingenuity, adaptability, agility, creative minds, creative thinking by our Soldier and by our leaders to get out there and get after it. It's a pretty low cost move to put my boots on and walk out the back door."
They agreed that their similar approach to the challenges facing them is because of their heritage as Sapper Eagles from the 101st Airborne Division.
"You can tell the two of us are cut from the same cloth," said Borders. "The reason we're cut from the same cloth is because we grew up in this division."
"Our heart is the 101st."