Sunday, November 18, 2012

Veteran's Day 2012 at Arlington National Cemetery

Just as they have on most Memorial Day and Veteran's Day weekends for many years, a group of 173rd, 2-503d Vietnam Bravo Bulls Veterans gathered at Arlington National Cemetery on Saturday November 10, 2012 to honor and remember the fallen from the 2-503d.  They were joined by family and friends as well as other Vietnam Veterans and 2-503d Veterans of OEF VI and OEF VIII (Afghanistan) their families and friends and an OEF VIII Gold Star widow.

Four members of the 173rd, 2-503d Vietnam Bravo Bulls render honors after laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns as the Old Guard bugler plays TAPS at Arlington National Cemetery. 
Back row left to right - Joe Logan and Jim Robinson 
Front row left to right - Dave Glick and LTC Roy Lombardo, Jr.)

The weather in the Washington, DC area could not have been more perfect as the Bravo Bulls, their wives, Veterans of the current day 2-503d, SGT Jeffery Mersman's Gold Star widow, Lynn, parents of a currently deployed 2-503 Battle Co Soldier, family and friends gathered at MG Ellis Williamson's grave at 11:00 to begin the day's remembrance events.

Part of the crowd assembled at MG Williamson's (and his wife's) grave at Arlington National Cemetery.  Sec 60, Site 383

LTC (r) Roy Lombardo, Jr. spoke about MG Williamson including how he brought the 173rd up on Okinawa.  LTC Lombardo related historical information and shared memories of MG Williamson both during the time the Vietnam Bravo Bulls served under him as well as fond memories after MG Williamson retired from the Army. 

MD Williamson was the first commander of the 173d. In 1963 he was given the job to assemble and train a strike force based in Okinawa, that was able to assault anywhere in south east Asia in 24 hours. In May of 1965, it was thought that Saigon was about to be overrun. At first the Brigade was all scheduled to jump into Vietnam. However, the plan was changed to land in Bien Hoa.  There were some elements of the Brigade who did make the only combat jump into Vietnam.  They were the first army unit to enter Vietnam and the last to leave. General Williamson in later years preferred to be called Butch.  MG Williamson started his army carrier as a trombone player in the North Carolina National Guard! After coming ashore at Normandy, he survived the carpet bombing at the "St. Lowe breakout". He started leading troops east, turned north and ended up in Berlin. Along the way he accumulated 4 DSC's, 6 Silver Stars, 4 Purple Hearts as well as many other medals and awards. He was a hell of a trombone player.

I've heard LTC Lombardo relate these stores before and never grow tired of listening.  I was especially grateful that so many of the modern day ROCK Paratroopers were present to learn about this part of their legacy. 

A wreath was unveiled and Honors were rendered.  LTC Lombardo, Jr. then recited the words to TAPS.  It was a very respectful and emotional moment.

Rendering Honors to MG Ellis Williamson

After the ceremony at MG Williamson's grave we all moved to the 173rd Memorial Stone in Sec 33 of the Cemetery where we waited for the 82nd Airborne Color Guard and Bugler to arrive.  Each year on both Memorial Day and Veteran's Day the 82nd Airborne sends the Color Guard and Bugler to Arlington National Cemetery.  They spend the majority of the day moving from Memorial to Memorial presenting the Colors and playing TAPS for any group who requests them to do so.

Members of the 173rd, 2-503d Vietnam Bravo Bulls with the 82nd Airborne Color Guard at the 173rd Memorial in Arlington

After the colors were presented, Bravo Bull Jim Robinson read the very moving poem Bury Me With Soldiers.  If you have never heard or read the poem I encourage you to click the link and read it.

Jim Robinson reading "Bury me with Soldiers"
LTC (r) Roy Lombardo, Jr. reminded us all of the ultimate sacrifice that so many have made for our nation throughout wars of all generations.  He then began to read names of the Fallen.
LTC (r) Roy Lombardo, Jr. reminding the crowd about the ultimate sacrifice of the Fallen Sky Soldiers from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan

As LTC Lombardo, Jr. read names of the fallen, members of the crowd placed an American flag around the base of the 173rd Memorial stone.
Ed Kearney placed the first flag in memory of Medal of Honor Recipient Milton Olive
LTC Lombardo, Jr. continued to read names of the Fallen from Bravo/Battle Company who were killed in action in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan as members of the crowd placed the flags.
2-503d "C" Company (Chosen Company) Soldiers who served in Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) during OEF VIII (2007-2008) were there to remember and honor the fallen.
The 173rd Memorial Stone at Arlington after the ceremony
Gold Star wife, Lynn, her children and friends of SGT Jeffrey Mersman who was Killed in Action on 9 November 2007 during OEF VIII.  SGT Mersman was a member of 2-503d Chosen Company
From there we moved to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where members of the 173rd, 2-503d Bravo Bulls laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
Tomb Sentinels bringing in the 173rd Wreath for the Bravo Bulls to place at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery
Photo by Ed Kearney
Bravo Bulls being briefed by the Sergeant of the Guard just before placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Photo by Ed Kearney
Bravo Bulls with the Sergeant of the Guard just before placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Photo by Karin Evink Markert
Placing the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns
Photo by Karin Evink Markert
LTC Lombardo, Jr. left the following comment on one of my pictures on facebook:  "It was a great honor to be able to place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns. There are no unknowns from the Vietnam War but I used the occasion to remember personally PFC Van Campen (The first KIA in B/2-503) and SFC John Lopez, awarded the DSC. Neither body was ever recovered. For me they reside in the same Limbo as the other Unknowns."
Rendering Honors after placing the wreath
Photo by Ed Kearney
Rendering Honors as the Bugler plays TAPS.  It was one of the most emotional moments of the day.  Photo by Karin Evink Markert
Photo by Karin Evink Markert
Photo by Ed Kearney
After the wreath had been placed at the Tomb of the Unknowns we went below to the barracks of the Sentinel Guards for a briefing about the Tomb of the Unknowns and the Tomb Guard Platoon.  The Soldier who briefed us was incredibly professional and informative.  I learned several things - one being that the Sentinel Guards do not wear rank while they are guarding the Tomb.  The reason for this is so that they do not out rank the Soldiers interred in the Tomb.  I also learned that the sitting President at the time the remains of any Unknown were interred is the one who is listed as "next of kin."
During the briefing the Sentinel who was briefing us excused himself for a minute.  When he came back he brought with him the Sentinel who was preparing to take over the guard duties at the Tomb.  He explained the Sentinel's uniform to us then answered questions regarding the uniform and weapon. 
Although the Sentinel was about to step out to take over guard duty he and the Commander of the Relief took a quick moment for photos.  We were very grateful to all of them for these very special opportunities.
Jim Robinson, Ed Kearney, Joe Logan, Commander of the Relief, Sentinel about to go on duty guarding the Tomb, Dave Glick and Roy Lombardo, Jr.
I honestly realized then and still do, how fortunate I am
Immediately after the above photo was taken the Soldier standing between Joe Logan and me, known as the Commander of the Relief, approached the exit door of the room and began his march out to the Tomb.  Within a short amount of time the Soldier on the far right of this photo approached the exit door to begin his march out to the Tomb where he took his place as the Sentinel guarding the Tomb for the next hour.  The Commander of the Relief is the Soldier who inspects the new guard coming on duty at the Tomb.
I was struck by how each Soldier's first step from the room was sharp and with such meaning. 
Our next stop was at the Caisson Stables for a tour and a briefing about the Caisson Platoon.  The Soldiers of the Caisson Platoon are those who escort the remains of our Fallen and of retired Veterans to their final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery.  Not only do they participate in numerous burials each day, they also care for the caissons, horses and the stables.  They, just like the Tomb Sentinels were incredibly professional and welcoming to us.
L to R:  Ed Kearney, Carol Lombardo, Dave Click, Judy, Roy Lombardo, Izzy, Caisson Soldier, Joe Logan and Jim Robinson outside the entrance to the Caisson Stables on Fort Myer
COL Jim and Mrs. (Karin) Markert had invited the Bravo Bulls back to their home for an early dinner after the day's events.
From lower right: Judy, Joe Logan, Izzy & Dave Glick, COL Jim and Karin Markert, Roy & Carol Lombardo and Ed Kearney at dinner at the Markert's home at Fort Myer
Kevin, a friend of the Markerts, and Jim Robinson at the dinner at the Markert's home
I am thankful to the Bravo Bulls for, once again, allowing me to be a part of such a special and memorable occasion.  I am thankful to Andi Fehl for helping to get the word out and to so many of the "younger" ROCK Paratroopers who attended the events.  I am also thankful to my friends COL Jim and Karin Markert (current Commander of The Old Guard), Arlington National Cemetery (for allowing the Bravo Bulls to lay the wreath), the Old Guard PAO, the Tomb Sentinels and the Caisson Platoon for going out of their way to make this such a special day.

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