The Washington National Guard's newly minted 81st Stryker Brigade Combat Team on Saturday switched out their raven patches for the iconic "Indian head" worn by the 2nd Infantry Division, marking the beginning of a year-long training partnership with the active Army.

The 81st Brigade, which until recently was an armored brigade combat team, is headquartered in Washington state and has units in Oregon and California. Under the new partnership, the Guard soldiers will train at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, including to learn how to operate their new vehicles, according to officials from the Guard and the 7th Infantry Division.

The 7th Infantry Division is the headquarters organization responsible for the two active Army Stryker brigades based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Those soldiers also wear the patch of the 2nd Infantry Division, which has its headquarters in South Korea.

"Being under the 7th ID, in an active duty division, gives us access to training opportunities that we didn’t have before," said Col. Bryan Grenon, commander of the 81st SBCT, during a phone interview with Army Times. "Subject matter experts, leaders at all echelons to help us really get after training."

Saturday's patching ceremony was the latest in a series of ceremonies where units have switched patches to symbolize a more robust training partnership between active Army and National Guard and Army Reserve units. The events are part of the Army's Associated Units pilot program, which was launched this summer to bring together units from all three components and establish formal relationships between designated units so they can train and potentially deploy together. 

Col. Stanley Sliwinski, commander of the 101st Airborne Division Sustainment Brigade, places the Screaming Eagle patch on a soldier from the 1176th Transportation Company during a ceremony Oct. 23. The units are participating in the Army's Associated Units pilot program, designed to pair active Army units with those in the National Guard and Army Reserve.
Photo Credit: Sgt. Neysa Canfield/Army

The 7th Infantry Division and 81st SBCT are the 13th duo to link up as part of the Associated Units program.

In October, soldiers in the 1176th Transportation Company put on the patch of the famed 101st Airborne Division as they prepared to partner with the 101st Sustainment Brigade.

Soldiers from the Texas Guard's 1st Battalion, 143rd Infantry Regiment put on the patch of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, an active Army unit in Vicenza, Italy, during a ceremony in August. Also switching patches were soldiers from the 1245th Transportation Company, Special Troops Battalion, 90th Troop Command. They now wear the patch of the 1st Cavalry Division.

As the pilot program grows, the Army plans to continue to pair more units for training and partnerships.

"I’m convinced that we’re going to do it," said Maj. Gen. Thomas James, commander of the 7th Infantry Division. "It’s just a matter of figuring out the intricacies of an active unit versus National Guard associated authorities and regulations."

In this case, the 81st SBCT will tap into the 7th Infantry Division's readiness and leadership training structure as it converts from an armored to Stryker brigade.

The brigade had been pushing for the better part of a decade to make the switch, Grenon said.

"It’s something that the states of Washington, California and Oregon really wanted to get, Stryker vehicles, because it helps us with the second part of our mission, which is domestic operations," he said.

Stryker vehicles from 3-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 7th Infantry Division line up before training at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. The Army just added to its inventory of Stryker brigades by converting the National Guard's 81st Brigade Combat Team. The unit is now paired with the 7th Infantry Division for training.

Photo Credit: Gustavo Bahena/Army

For instance, they couldn't bring their Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles to an earthquake response mission, but Srykers could do the job.

The brigade will receive its new vehicles, from the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii, over the next few months, said Maj. Gen. Bret Daugherty, the adjutant general of the Washington National Guard.

They'll spend the next year learning how to operate the Stryker variants and the M777 howitzer that goes with them, and beyond that, the units will prepare for the 81st SBCT's National Training Center rotation in 2020.

"We’ve got to realize, as an active division, that they don’t train every day like we do," James said of the timeline. "So a year is equal to 39 days. I’m thinking [fiscal year] 20 is way out there, but in reality, they have less time to prepare than our brigade that’s preparing for the end of FY17."

Thirty-nine days is the 81st SBCT's statutory minimum of active days, but that time will ratchet up as they prepare for NTC, Grenon said. The goal is to join the 7th Infantry Division on some of its exercises, like U.S. Army Pacific's Pacific Pathways and Bayonet Focus at the Yakima Training Center in Washington.

"They’ve got that experience that’ll really help my guys better employ the Stryker in those kinds of scenarios," Grenon said of the 7th Infantry Division.

The units were chosen, leadership said, because of their already close relationship. The 81st SBCT's headquarters are just across the street from JBLM at Camp Murray.

Leadership is hopeful that the Associated Units program will be permanent one day.

"I am convinced that it’s going to be successful and we’ll continue," James said. "The pilot is to evaluate whether this works or not, but it’s really just to iron out the bugs, I think."