Pathfinder veterans prepare to say goodbye to last-of-its-kind Army unit
By DREW BROOKS | The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. | Published: February 23, 2017
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — The 82nd Airborne Division's pathfinder company has quietly served for the last several months as the last of its kind.
The unit, F Company, 2nd Assault Helicopter Battalion, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, was slated for deactivation last year but received a reprieve of sorts - one final deployment in support of U.S. forces in Africa.
With that deployment ending earlier this month, the unit's soldiers now face a new fate.
The pathfinder company, the last in the Army, will be deactivated in a ceremony on Fort Bragg's Simmons Army Airfield on Friday afternoon.
On Thursday, dozens of veteran pathfinders from across the country began to gather on and around Fort Bragg ahead of the event.
Some of the veterans, members of the National Pathfinder Association, met with modern 82nd Airborne pathfinders at the Airborne & Special Operations Museum.
During a tour of the museum, many of the veterans said the upcoming ceremony was bittersweet.
Eric Hunt, president of the national association, said officials from the organization have attended similar ceremonies for other pathfinder units in the past year. This one would be different because it would be the last.
"It's a sad day," Hunt said.
Pathfinders are specialized soldiers born out of World War II, when Army leaders recognized the need for troops to go into enemy territory to set up drop zones and helicopter landing sites and direct air traffic.
The Army has been deactivating the units, along with other small and specialized units known as long-range surveillance companies, as part of a larger force reorganization.
Fort Bragg's LRS company, F Company, 51st Infantry Regiment, was deactivated in December, officials have said.
Now, the pathfinder company is slated to join that unit in casing its guidon.
But while the unit is going away, officials said the capabilities won't. Instead, the pathfinders will be dispersed to other units in the 82nd Airborne Division to provide support to those units.
The pending deactivation has brought several past members of the 82nd Airborne Division's pathfinder units to Fort Bragg, including Fran Bujnowski, who traveled from Auburn, Massachusetts.
Bujnowski said he didn't know what a pathfinder was when, fresh from jump school, he reported to the 82nd Airborne Division in 1966.
He was told he would be joining an aviation unit. At the time, Bujnowski said he thought that meant he would be a door gunner.
Instead, the soldier was told he would have a different job, integral to the support of airborne and helicopter operations.
"You guys are going to be responsible for a lot of things," Bujnowski recalled being told.
He said the pathfinders' black hats set them apart from other soldiers.
"People immediately recognized you when they saw that hat," he said.
Bujnowski served in Vietnam with other units, but he said he always considered himself a pathfinder, first and foremost.
"Once a pathfinder, always a pathfinder," he said.
That same sentiment drove many of the pathfinder veterans to hold onto the hope that one day they would return to see the unit reactivated.
"I think these things go in cycles," Hunt said, noting that the Army had deactivated the units before, only to bring them back when the capabilities were needed again. "We're hoping they come back eventually."
Others expressed dismay that the unit was the last left in the Army and would soon go away.
"I don't understand fully the decision," said retired Lt. Col. John Norton Jr., who will be a guest speaker during Friday's ceremony.
Norton is a former pathfinder, who is also the son of one of the founders of the original pathfinder unit.
That unit, formed in World War II, was created from 82nd Airborne Division and 101st Airborne Division soldiers at the request of Gen. James Gavin, wartime commander of the 82nd Airborne.
Gavin and Norton's father, Lt. Gen. John Norton Sr., were among the first inductees into the pathfinder hall of fame, Norton said.
He said the legacy of the pathfinder was, in some ways, the legacy of his father.
A veteran of the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne, Norton said pathfinders played an important role in many of the nation's conflicts. It's a role they continued until earlier this month, when soldiers returned from the last mission for the pathfinder company.
"It's bittersweet," said 1st Lt. Jordan Leskera, one of the soldiers who returned from Djibouti about two weeks ago. "It' sad to see this capability kind of disappear from the Army."
Leskera said there are about 30 soldiers left in F Company. Many will stay on Fort Bragg and serve elsewhere in the 82nd Airborne.
"It's more than just a job description," Leskera said of being a pathfinder, motioning to the veterans gathered at the museum. "You look back at the history, the brotherhood, it's a special bond."
Military editor Drew Brooks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org