CAMP RED CLOUD, South Korea — Some of the U.S. Army’s most storied and decorated units may be threatened with the ax as part of transformation, a process expected to change radically the structure of U.S. fighting forces over the next few years.

Military planners have yet to decide exactly what form the new-look Army will take, but officials acknowledge that deactivating units likely will be involved.

The last major round of such changes happened from 1990 to 1996, when the Army reduced its divisions from 18 to 10. It was a turbulent experience, with many of the service’s most honored units disappearing from its rolls, U.S. Army Center for Military History records state.

The 8th Army’s public affairs chief, Lt. Col. Tom Budzyna, said the Army is embarked on its most profound transformation since World War II and is making tremendous progress, but no decisions have been made yet about which units might be disbanded.

But the looming change has worried veterans of units they say are rumored to be deactivation candidates.

Last month, 2nd Infantry Division 2nd Engineer Battalion veterans journeyed to South Korea for the annual Burning of the Colors, which commemorates the unit’s outstanding efforts in the epic Korean War battle at Kunu-ri. During that engagement, the unit commander ordered the battalion colors burned so advancing Chinese forces would be deprived of a war trophy.

Many of the veterans attending this year’s ceremony said they believed it might be their last chance to take part in the half-century-old tradition.

Retired Maj. Arden Rowley, 74, of Mesa, Ariz., who spent 33 months as a North Korean prisoner of war after being captured at Kunu-ri, said he attended the December ceremony only after hearing the 2nd Engineer Battalion was to be deactivated as part of transformation.

"I wanted to make sure I came to this one because it could have been the last," he said. "If there is no 2nd Engineers, they won’t keep burning the flag."

The battalion, which was formed in 1861, had been through several reorganizations over the years but kept its identity, he said, adding, "It’s a darn shame to see it lose its identity now."

Another veteran at the December ceremony, Jim Ditton, 77, of Surprise, Ariz., a private first class with the 2nd Engineers at Kunu-ri, said the Army should find some way to preserve the unit.

"I don’t think the history will ever be lost, but it is sad to see the battalion losing its identity as the 2nd Engineers," he said.

Veterans of Foreign Wars Director of Public Affairs Joe Davis said the services made every attempt to protect "heraldry," meaning, for the most part, that those units were retained that were the oldest or had the most distinguished battle records.

"No one outside DOD (Department of Defense) knows which units are being looked at for possible deactivation, relocation or transformation," he said. "Whatever the final determination (after congressional approval), the public needs to remember that the world threat has changed and the U.S. military must evolve accordingly to meet and beat any current and foreseeable enemy."

Almost all veterans feel a close camaraderie with their former units and the people with whom they served, especially if the units were in battle, he said.

"Veterans everywhere are encouraged to visit their former units to share their stories with today’s current generation. Our histories are important," he said, "but the opportunity to personally say ‘thanks for serving,’ from an old vet to a young servicemember, is more important."

The 8th Army declined a request to interview soldiers from units that might be affected. Which units those might be is "all speculation," Budzyna said, adding that structural changes don’t necessarily mean a storied unit would be disbanded. Historical advisers in the United States would make the "final call" on deactivations, he said.

"And that is a decision that must wait until the new structures are decided upon and possibly even after the new structures take effect," he said.

The organization advising the Army on which units should be retained and which should be deactivated during force restructuring is the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

A spokesman for the center said that, if necessary, an Order of Merit List would be compiled of units that might be deactivated.

"The U.S. Army Center of Military History uses a mathematical formula to compile an Order of Merit list (OML) for units. The formula is based on the units’ age and number of campaigns and decorations. The OML forms an objective starting point for making decisions regarding retention of units," the spokesman said, "but is rarely strictly followed by decision makers."

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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