Most of them had never even been to Virginia, but a special gathering brought people from all over the United States to Lake Ridge RV Resort in Hillsville during the weekend of August 4-5.
Officially, it was the third annual reunion of the Army’s 92nd Engineer Battalion, 3rd Platoon who served together during Desert Storm. And while none of them are related in the actual sense of the word, they are all blood brothers. And that brand of brotherhood, the kind that can only be forged in the heat of battle, is what brought them to the mountains of Southwest Virginia for this special occasion.
“It’s the bond. It is really kind of hard to describe,” said Rusty Englund, on why he traveled 2,700 miles from Washington State to Carroll County. “There were some guys in there that I only knew them for nine months. I don’t know how to put it into words of how you could put your own life in someone else’s hands you have only known for a few months, but it’s something you don’t have to ever worry about, still to this day. But the amount of time you know somebody compared to how much trust that is, it’s unexplainable really. That kind of bond is unbreakable.”
Most of them had not seen each other in a quarter-of-a-century until Eric Marsh of Toledo, Ohio held the first reunion near his hometown in 2016. The following year, members of the platoon met up again in Ohio. Looking for a new location, the 92nd Engineer Battalion voted to hold the 2018 reunion in Carroll County, where their First Sgt. Jerry Caviness resides.
“It feels great. It felt good when they first contacted me after all these years. Because even though it’s been over 25 years, when you see a picture on TV, a war picture, some certain names come to mind and you always wonder what happened to them,” Caviness said. “And then getting in contact with them after 25 years, it was great. A lot of them had never been to Virginia. They are all really happy and they actually love this place.”
Aside from Washington State, members of the platoon traveled from as far away as Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, Massachusetts, Florida, Kentucky and West Virginia to Carroll County. They are willing to travel that far because in a way it’s like going back in time and with people that are like family.
“When we got there two years ago at Eric’s house, after the initial shock of seeing each other after 25 years, it was like we were 24 years old again. We never missed a beat and that is just part of that bond also,” Englund said. “It really is unbreakable. It’s hard to explain the bond, to put it into words exactly because it is almost a relative-type bond. Even though you may not see your aunt or uncle or your brother for whatever time, it is always there and it is always a phone call away no matter what. It is overwhelmingly really.”
They drank beer and played cornhole. They caught up and told old stories. And if that wasn’t good enough, they enjoyed an incredible Low Country Broil that members of the Caviness family made that Saturday evening. In particular, Jeff Casale from Boston caught the attention of his fellow soldiers when he broke out a scrapbook with a picture of Casale and George H.W. Bush, President when the Desert Storm conflict began in 1990. Casale said the photo was taken at a fundraiser. He said the former Commander-In-Chief took special interest in Casale when he realized he was a Desert Storm veteran.
“I met him when everyone was getting to meet him in a line. He winked at me and goes, ‘We’ll talk later.’ Afterward, we go to sit down and we got to talk. I wanted to ask him stuff, but he wouldn’t let me,” Casale said. “He wanted to know what I did over there, how long I was over there and stuff like that.”
Officially known as Headquarter Support Company, 92nd Engineer Battalion, 3rd Platoon, Caviness and his men were stationed in Fort Stewart, Georgia before being deployed for Desert Storm and Operation Desert Shield. During the conflict, the platoon served as a support unit building roads and helipads in Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
“There are two types of engineers we have in the Army. We have combat engineers with the small dozers and then we are the construction engineers, or as some refer to us, the big boys with the big toys,” Caviness said, noting that at the start of the war his unit breached big craters the Iraqis had dug along the border and filled with oil. “And they were going to light them as we tried to cross. But we went breached them with our heavy equipment and then we filled them back in while we had air support and they couldn’t fire on us. Once that was done we had to build the berms over the oil lines that run through Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi because we could not cross them. They were all above ground, probably three feet in diameter, and we had to build berms so that our tanks and our fighting units were not bottlenecked.”
Once the unit made it to Kuwait, Caviness said his platoon’s task was to go out in the desert and find abandoned Iraqi equipment. Once found, Caviness and his men greeted the equipment with C4 explosives.
“We had a lot of C4 and we made a lot of blowups,” Caviness said. “A little pack of C4 will cut a piece of equipment right into.”
Fortunately, Caviness said his platoon didn’t lose any men during their deployment, which lasted from October of 1990 to April of 1991. Still, the sad story of one fellow soldier was fresh in the hearts and minds of veterans in attendance at the Carroll County reunion. Anthony Hartman, who served in the platoon, was murdered in 1993, just a couple of years after returning to the United States from the Gulf War. Sadly, almost no one from the platoon knew of Hartman’s demise until recently, more than 25 years later. His memory was honored at the reunion with a fallen soldier tribute featuring his Army helmet sitting atop his Army boots surrounded by a pair of American flags and photos of Hartman.
Most of the weekend was not as solemn, however. In particular, Caviness was taken aback by the high regard his troops still held him in after all those years since Desert Storm.
“So many of them said, ‘Sarge, you guys were just like fathers to us. We left home, we come in under you guys and you all trained us how to do everything. At that time we didn’t realize it, but when we look back and see what you guys did, that is how come we did so much better, because of the training you all gave us,” Caviness said. “And to go around and talk to them, you can see the respect they still have. Even though I have been retired for 20-some years, they still visualize me as one of the head guys and it makes you feel great. I tell them you don’t have to call me First Sergeant anymore, but they will still call me ‘Top,’ which is the same as First Sergeant. Just the thought of how much they still respect you, that goes a long way.”
One of the men who served under Caviness was Marsh, an E4 Specialist from Ohio. It was Marsh who put together the first platoon reunion after meeting up with a fellow soldier in 2014. At first, he thought the suggestion was crazy – and a monumental task at best. Without knowing where those guys lived, their phone numbers, and in some cases, their names, he didn’t think it was possible.
“It hasn’t got quite as big as I wanted to originally because I got so excited about finding people. Then I found out how easy it was to find people on Facebook and pretty soon you didn’t even have to find a person. You only needed to find a nephew or a grandmother. We have our own page now and it has 82 members,” Marsh said. “And if you get a message through to somebody, most often they are very excited to hear from you. I tell my wife this all the time, they didn’t know they wanted to, but they wanted to.”
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN