KIRKUK, Iraq — Soldiers from the 116th Brigade Combat Team got combat patches for their right sleeves Friday, earning them a unique place in Idaho National Guard history.
The Army awards combat patches to soldiers who serve in a combat theater for more than 30 days.
What made Friday's ceremony historic is the fact that the Idaho National Guard's 116th "Sneaky Snake" patch has never been worn before for combat.
"It's nice because I'm part of the National Guard, and it's a National Guard patch," said Spc. Ann Hayden of Payette, a three-year member of the National Guard and the 116th.
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The 116th Cavalry, as it's known stateside, was constituted in 1920. Its soldiers have participated in nearly every war and conflict since. Typically, though, deployed National Guard soldiers have been assigned to active-duty Army units. Those Idaho Guard members who've earned a combat patch wear the patch of those units.
Because the 116th is in Iraq this year as a brigade, the soldiers will get to wear the Snake River combat patch.
"The Snake River patch has a long history of service to the nation," Brigade Commander Brig. Gen. Alan Gayhart told soldiers at a ceremony Friday. "You continue this proud tradition, and I am honored to be among you."
Representatives from each unit in the 116th Brigade Combat Team stood in formation at the ceremony at Forward Operating Base Warrior at the Kirkuk Regional Air Base, the main base for the 4,000 soldiers operating in northern Iraq. About half those soldiers are from Idaho.
"First and foremost, it is a day of pride in your unit and pride in your service," said 42nd Infantry Division Commander Major General Joseph Taluto. "You're doing a magnificent job. We couldn't be more proud of the way you've conducted yourselves."
All soldiers wear a unit patch on their left shoulders, but if they get a combat patch, they wear that on their right shoulder. It becomes a permanent part of their uniform.
Soldiers entered Friday's ceremony with duct tape over their 116th combat patches because they could not officially wear them until the ceremony.
"Wear this patch with honor and never forget the warriors who wear this patch with you," Gayhart said as soldiers tore the duct tape off their shoulders.
Many National Guard soldiers go their entire careers without getting a combat patch. That nearly happened to Command Sgt. Major Charles Whittier of Inkom. He served 17 years of active duty in the Army and 13 years in the National Guard. Whittier entered the Army during the Vietnam War but was sent to Germany. He served in Panama but left just before the fighting broke out there.
"Always a bridesmaid, I guess," he said. "I got to the point in the National Guard I never thought this was going to happen."
The patch signifies more than combat, Whittier said: "We sacrificed by leaving our families and missing key events in our lives to get this."
Sgt. Warren Hurt of Idaho Falls said it's also a message for the whole state: "It signifies the people of Idaho have been to combat and back, and hopefully we will bring everyone home."
For soldiers not from Idaho, the 116th becomes a permanent part of their military careers. As long as Spc. Justin Narcise of Chicago wears an Army uniform, he can have the 116th patch on his shoulder. He's normally assigned to an Illinois Guard unit, but he's part of the 116th during its deployment.
"It's really an honor to get a patch from these guys," Narcise said. "It's like being permanently adopted."