‘Papa Bear’ Didn’t Hibernate at 73 Easting


Retired Sgt. 1st Class Gerald Shoates.

(From ARMY Magazine, Vol. 66, No. 5. Copyright 2016 by the Association of the U.S. Army and reprinted by permission of ARMY Magazine.)

I could fill a calendar with dates that are important to me: the day I got married; the birth of my sons; the day I quit smoking, then started again, then quit again. But twice over, Feb. 26 was a day that made me the man I am today, all because one man took the time to make a difference in a young Soldier’s life.

Feb. 26 was the day I left home for boot camp at Fort Knox, Ky., in 1990. Exactly one year later, Feb. 26 was the day I rode into battle in the barren Arabian Peninsula.

No, I haven’t always lived the good life as an Army Reserve journalist. Way back when, typical of most 18-year-old American boys with a vast collection of G.I. Joes, I got a wild hair to serve Uncle Sam by launching headfirst into oh-so-glorious battle as a cavalry scout.

I got my wish at the Battle of 73 Easting. The list of 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment “Dragoons” who claimed 3rd Platoon, A Troop, 1st Squadron, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment as not just a unit but also an institution is long. But there was one man who bore responsibility for us all: now-retired Sgt. 1st Class Gerald Shoates. He became known to us as Papa Bear and after 25 years, the power of social media brought us back together.

Draft Pick

Shoates, a native of Sebring, Fla., was working his way through his third year of college at Florida A&M University when his number got called for the draft in 1970.

After basic combat training at Fort Jackson, S.C., and advanced individual training at Fort Knox, Ky., Shoates was officially an Army scout. Two weeks later, he was stepping onto Vietnamese soil to serve with the 101st Airborne Division in Quang Tri.

Momentos of a Soldier’s life; in this case, that of retired Sgt. 1st Class Gerald Shoates.

“I got my Purple Heart at Quang Tri,” Shoates recalled. He and his unit were on patrol when they encountered North Vietnamese Army troops and started taking fire. The battle lasted for several hours; Shoates was injured by a mortar blast but continued fighting.

“We were taking fire from everywhere when I got hit with shrapnel,” he said. “I was returning fire from an M113 when my section sergeant tried to pull me down off the gun. I told him to hold on a doggone minute and about a half-hour later, I looked down and saw blood all over my neck and chest.”

When he returned to the U.S., “I wasn’t the best person in the world. I got into a lot of fights back then,” he said. It wasn’t until Shoates served on the 4th Infantry Division Honor Guard at Fort Carson, Colo., from 1971 to 1972 “that I straightened up. We did a lot of military burials, and I made up my mind that I could do better than what I’d been doing.”

“I kept looking at these guys’ families and thought, man, I’m messing up,” Shoates said. “I convinced myself that the best way to honor these guys is to do my job right. In that way, I’ve tried to honor them ever since.”

First Run-In

I was a 105-pound newbie fresh from basic training when my journey with Shoates began in Bindlach, Germany, which sits at the top of a mountain near the old East German and Czechoslovakian border. When I arrived in late June 1990, the highlights of “The Rock” were a Baskin-Robbins with three flavors, and a mobile ATM that made its way to post every Tuesday and Thursday, give or take a Tuesday or Thursday.

Retired Sgt. 1st Class Gerald Shoates during Operation Desert Storm.

I was standing, frozen at parade rest and with jaw clenched, outside the office of the platoon sergeant, Shoates. After what felt like days but in retrospect may have been minutes, a hulking man approached me from next door. The left shoulder of his uniform bore a fleur-de-lis; perched on his right shoulder was the screaming eagle. In a deep, low voice, this great big bear of a man asked me, “Which way does wheat grow?”

Dumbfounded, I stood there and answered his question with another question, “In the ground … sir?”

Several minutes later, as I was recovering from pushups to the point of muscle failure, my new supervisor explained that wheat alludes to the gold border around unit awards on the dress green uniform. More importantly, knowing so indicated attention to detail—the very thing that got Shoates through Vietnam. That same attention to detail, he said, would carry me throughout my military career.

New Threat Emerges

The months following my arrival at Bindlach were dedicated to preparing for a Soviet threat that never came. The call that did come, quite unexpectedly, was to deploy to the deserts of the Middle East. It was a terrain vastly different from what we had trained for, but Shoates wasn’t worried. There were some tactical adjustments that would need to be rehearsed before deploying, he said, but these things become second nature.

So in late February 1991, gear and equipment in hand and as ready for battle as we could be, the soldiers of the 2nd ACR braced ourselves for Middle Eastern theater ground operations. It was the last great tank battle of the 20th century: the Battle of 73 Easting.

The events of 73 Easting have been well-documented. The battle’s name is derived from a north and south grid line on a map in the barren Iraqi desert used to mark the advance of U.S. and coalition forces.

In it, elements of Operation Desert Sabre, namely the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment under the command of Col. Leonard D. “Don” Holder, spearheaded a lightning-quick attack against a well-equipped opposing force in Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard—the Tawakalna Division.

We were facing a formidable foe, and Shoates decided we needed a reality check. “You know, we’d been sitting there, bored, for quite a while,” Shoates said later, “and there was a lot of bravado in the platoon. Having been one of a small handful of people in the troop that had actually seen combat, it worried me.”

“So I borrowed a body bag from one of the medics and met with all the leaders of the platoon the night before the battle. I explained to them how to use it.”

It was a cold dose of reality. “Soldiers get hurt and killed. It happens,” he recalled telling us. “But you guys are the best-trained in the Army, with the best equipment in the world. Rely on your training, and let’s go out there and do what we need to do.”

Shoates then reached back to his faith for that final pep talk to his platoon.

Retired Sgt. 1st Class Gerald Shoates during the Vietnam Conflict.

“I thought back to an old hymn my wife used to sing, A Storm is Passing Over. I said, ‘There’s a storm passing over. Yep, it’s a Desert Storm, but it will pass over.’ I prayed every day that if it did come and we were caught in the midst of it, that it would indeed pass over.”

Though the Republican Guard was dug in and probably expecting a large attacking force, they were not prepared for the swift and violent attack that came. In fact, the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment advanced so quickly that most of the Iraqi opposing force were caught off-guard and out of their tanks and personnel carriers.

In all, 113 armored vehicles were lost that day by the Iraqi army, while the U.S. lost just one Bradley Fighting Vehicle and a crew member due to enemy fire.

Returning Home

Twenty-five years after Operation Desert Storm and about 50 years after Quang Tri, Shoates said a lot has changed in the Army and in the U.S. in general. But of it all, the one positive change that stands out to him is how returning soldiers are treated.

“After Vietnam … the Army as a whole was demoralized,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I served with some brave and dedicated [soldiers], but our demoralization resulted from the way [the war] was opposed when we returned stateside. I am proud to witness, and be a part of, the revitalization that took place and was crucial to our Desert Storm success.”

Shoates retired from the Army shortly after Operation Desert Storm. He and his wife, Angela, live in Tyrone, Ga., about 25 miles south of Atlanta, and have been married for more than 40 years. They have seven children and 21 grandchildren, several of whom are in uniform.

During our recent visit after reconnecting on Facebook, the man who had served as my platoon sergeant, father figure and mentor told me he was proud of me, and I gave him a hug. A tough and battle-hardened former cavalry scout would never admit to getting emotional, so I whispered the words as I walked away.

“Wheat grows up, Papa Bear. Wheat grows up.”


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