ORCHARD COMBAT TRAINING CENTER, Idaho – Oregon Army National Guardsman Master Sgt. Alex Porter has suffered four broken bones serving his state and nation.
He spent more than a year in Iraq on a combat tour.
He’s tasted more desert sand than he can remember and fired every major weapons platform in the American Army’s arsenal. He’s seen good officers and bad officers, brave men and cowards, watched young soldiers emerge as leaders in the most difficult circumstances and endured more than his share of heartbreak.
A quick glance at Alex Porter’s face might be enough to convey the truckload of history and heritage he carries regarding eastern Oregon’s 3rd Battalion, 116th Cavalry Regiment.
But one must listen to his words, too.
It is there, inside the voice of a veteran citizen-soldier where the real stories linger. The voice resonates with images, textures and memories that splinter against the mind’s-eye. Inside those memories, all the citizen-soldiers of the 3rd Battalion glide by, young and eager, fixed on the future.
For Alex Porter, there are always memories.
When Porter joined the Oregon Army National Guard President Ronald Regan lived in the White House. Rap music did not exist and neither did the Internet. Afghanistan was the former Soviet Union’s problem. Terrorism was something that occurred in Europe and every night television stations still signed off by “ending their broadcasting day” and playing the National Anthem.
Porter is a unique piece of institutional knowledge for the 3rd Battalion. He has seen nearly everything in his three decades of service in the unit.
He watched privates enlist and become sergeants and then develop into sergeant majors. He watched technology change, stood witness as the modern American military morphed into a lethal, high-tech machine. He also said goodbye to some comrades forever.
His words deliver wisdom. His voice rings of memories. Porter, a Bradley fighting vehicle master gunner assigned to La Grande’s Oregon Army National Guard unit, said change – in uniforms, tactics, and equipment – remains the common denominator to his recollections of the Guard.
“I can remember when we used searchlights on the tanks,” he said with a smile.
Searchlights on tanks?
“And I’ve seen the Army go through four different duty uniforms,” he said. “And I’ve seen six NETTs (New Equipment Trainings) with the battalion.”
Porter, a native of Hood River, Ore., who now lives in La Grande, said the biggest change regarding the Guard is the evolution in technology.
“The way we fight has totally changed. We see the battlefield so much better. We don’t have to see the enemy now to fight the enemy,” he said.
Porter, 49, hit the 30-year mark in the Oregon Guard in June. He said he spent 18 of those years as a part-time Guardsman, and then became a full-time Guardsman (or Active Guard Reserve) in 2001. Even the day he stepped into his full-time slot for the 3rd Battalion drips with memories and historical implications.
“My first day as an AGR was 9/11,” he said. A good share of Porter’s memories swirl around the vast, desolate Orchard Combat Training Center where this week he stood on a metal range tower and graded a citizen-soldier scout detachment as it maneuvered through a gunnery test.
The metal tower showcased wide, mostly-clear windows with a panoramic view of the gunnery range. The tower – outfitted with power and radios – is just one of a dozen or so similar structures that dot the high-desert landscape of the Orchard Combat Training Center. All of the ranges are directed by a far taller, cement structure situated on a peak called Christmas Mountain. That tower primarily controls Range 1, the tank gunnery range. Long ago, that cement structure was nothing more than a rickety edifice, Porter said.
“I remember when that tower was just a wooden platform,” he said. “I’ve run every range, at one time or another, here.”
The work in the gunnery tower is hectic, Porter admitted. There are radios squawking, people talking and information spilling out from computer laptops and digital screens. As the Bradley master gunner, Porter stands at the epicenter of the training. He must gauge items like wind and heat while watching how the crews on Bradley fighting vehicles or in Humvees perform.
Porter, though, said he loves the hectic, high-tempo work.
“Up in the tower your mind is going four different directions. But that’s what keeps me sharp,” he said.
Porter said his other focus is simple: Teaching.
After each scout detachment completed its practice run down the gunnery range he met with each Humvee crew and reviewed their performance.
“If I can teach them something that will keep them alive, I win, and of course, they win,” he said.
He is one of the oldest members of the battalion and its history since the 1980s is Porter’s too. As Porter aged and matured, so did the Orchard Combat Training Center. In the 1980s the range was even more isolated and bleak then it is now. In the past 25 years, though, the range evolved with new construction, better gravel roads and more high-tech gadgetry.
Still, Porter is quick to point out that the fundamental elements of training – long days and nights, harsh conditions and a focus on readiness – remain constant. He is, in many ways, a living, breathing embodiment of the Eastern Oregon battalion’s past. Knowledge – the kind earned the hard way – seeps from Porter. He knows the desert. Knows the conditions. He knows what it is like to wake up after securing only a few hours of sleep and then turn right around and put in another 16-hour-a-day training.
And he knows how valuable something like espirit de corps is to a military outfit.
“We’ve (the 3rd Battalion) maintained our core values. Our NCO (non-commissioned officer corps) three decades later is still very professional,” he said.
The 3rd Battalion and the Orchard Combat Training Center remain fixtures in Porter’s life but he said he understands that one day he will retire and leave all of it behind. Then, he said, he will probably go back home to Hood River. But, he said, he won’t forget La Grande.
“I probably will (return to Hood River) but I may keep a place in La Grande and Hood River. My grandparents were in La Grande for 50 years,” he said.
And, of course, wherever he lives there will be the memories. Of the 3rd Battalion.
Of Bradley fighting vehicles.
And, of course, the high-desert.