Recruitment concerns have prompted the U.S. Army’s plan to close the Army Reserve unit that has been based in Eau Claire for nearly 60 years.
The 397th Engineer Battalion, which was activated in Eau Claire on May 18, 1959, will hold a ceremony Saturday to mark the unit’s move to Marina, Calif., Army spokesman Sgt. 1st Class Jason Proseus said Wednesday.
“I’m saddened by this decision,” said David Raihle, a Chippewa Falls attorney who served in the 397th for 27 years, including three as battalion commander. “There are a lot of citizens who were proud to wear the uniform that are losing the opportunity.”
More importantly, Raihle said, the presence of the 397th headquarters and its soldiers helps west-central Wisconsin residents understand the role and importance of the military.
“We’re losing the connection between our communities and the military, and I think that’s a tragic loss,” said Raihle, who retired from the Reserve in 2011.
The battalion’s more than 150 soldiers will be given the opportunity to relocate with the unit, but it won’t be required, the Army indicated in a news release. They will have the choice of transferring to another engineer unit or changing their occupational specialty so they can stay close to home.
Raihle said it’s possible some of the full-time employees who work in the 397th headquarters building at 2005 Keith St. might transfer, but it’s unlikely any of the soldiers will make that choice. Most of the soldiers in the unit live within a 100-mile radius of Eau Claire.
The announcement appears to be fallout from the Army’s struggle to fill its rosters, in part because the strong economy means potential recruits have many other employment options to consider. Nationally, the Army, Army Reserve and Army National Guard all reported falling short of their recruitment goals this year.
“The U.S. Army Reserve and the 416th Theater Engineer Command feel this move is necessary for force modernization,” the release states. “The population of potential enlistees throughout the U.S. migrates, and the Army must shift its unit geographically to capitalize on the growth in areas to ensure their rosters are full.”
Former reservist Kevin Wiemer of Glen Flora recalled that recruiting sometimes was a challenge even before he retired in 2009 after 25 years in the 397th, particularly after the pace of deployments accelerated during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
“A lot of parents don’t want to let their kids join the military at this point,” said Wiemer, who was the unit’s acting sergeant major between deployments to Afghanistan in 2004-05 and to Iraq in 2006-07.
He volunteered for both deployments after other 397th soldiers were activated.
“I saw my soldiers getting called up, and I just felt that was something I needed to do,” Wiemer said.
The 397th has been in and out of service since World War II, when it received the Philippine Presidential Unit Citation for its actions during the Luzon Campaign in 1944 and 1945. Elements of the battalion have trained since that time in places across the world, including Europe, South America and multiple deployments to Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. Its most recent deployment was to Romania.
Colfax schools Superintendent Bill Yingst served in the 397th for about five years starting in 1996 and ended up commanding several noncommissioned officers from the unit when he was deployed to Afghanistan as a command sergeant major for the Minnesota-based 367th Engineer Battalion. The unit was charged with clearing improvised explosive devices from Afghan roads in 2004 and 2005.
“I have nothing but the highest respect and highest regard for those NCOs,” Yingst said. “They did an outstanding job and were true leaders. As far as I’m concerned, we were the best in the world at that time in terms of IED and land mine clearance, and they were a big part of that. They really served their country well.”
Yingst also said he was disappointed to hear the 397th is leaving Wisconsin.
“It’s a sad thing because there’s a lot of history there and a lot of pride and lineage,” he said. “A lot of people served around here.”
For Raihle, an important part of the battalion’s legacy from its time in Eau Claire involves the role it played in modernizing the Army Reserve and National Guard across the country.
In the 1990s, Raihle said, the 397th volunteered to be part of testing about how active-duty Army units using digital communication devices could best communicate during combat with Reserve and Guard units still using old-fashioned nondigital equipment. After nearly two years of testing in simulated battlefield conditions, the Army determined it couldn’t work effectively, providing part of the impetus to supply the Guard and Reserve with modern equipment.
Before the shift, Raihle recalled doing drills to practice dismounting from an armored personnel carrier by using folding chairs and broom handles in the parking lot of the building on Keith Street. By the time Raihle retired from the Reserve in 2008, the Eau Claire unit trained with “the latest and greatest” equipment, he said.
The battalion is composed of many highly skilled people who make their living building things in civilian life, he said. Its role on the battlefield includes enhancing mobility for troops by keeping roads free of bombs and building roads and bridges.
The loss of the 397th headquarters also will deliver an economic blow to the Chippewa Valley, the retired reservists said, as soldiers would spend money at gas stations, hotels and restaurants during their monthly weekends of training and annual two-week stints.
In addition, Raihle said, the battalion bought spare parts and fuel in the region, contracted for janitorial service and employed several staffers who lived in the community.
“It’s a vital part of our community that we’re losing,” he said.
Saturday’s ceremony, scheduled at 1 p.m. in the Memorial High School gym, will involve casing the battalion’s colors for travel. More than 150 soldiers from the 397th and their families are expected to attend, along with alumni of the unit and several high-ranking officers.