30 September 2011

The Red Bull in Winter

A group of approximately 50 "Red Bull" soldiers, veterans, friends, and family gathered in central Iowa earlier this month. It was the 34th Infantry Division Association's 64th Annual Reunion. Guest-blogger Ashlee Lolkus wrote about the event here.

The gathering was a mix of those who remember Italy and Africa, and those who remember Iraq and Afghanistan. Nationally, the organization numbers around 1,000 members. Like other groups of similar vintage, the 34th Infantry Division association faces a dwindling membership and flagging sense of purpose. Young people don't join clubs and go to dances like they used to. They don't join bowling leagues or Legion halls. And, face it, nobody in this life is getting any younger.

In 1951, in his retirement remarks to the U.S. Congress, U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur famously invoked the lyrics to a song sung often in the barracks: "Old soldiers never die. They just fade away."

So, apparently, do their organizations.

According to an Aug. 25, 2011 St. Louis Dispatch article regarding the 84th Division Association, "more of the men who made up the Greatest Generation are calling it quits when it comes to annual get-togethers with their wartime buddies. The 99th Infantry Division, the 40th Engineers, the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team and the crew of the aircraft carrier Enterprise are just a few groups that have hosted their final gatherings in recent months."

At a 34th Inf. Div. "final roll call" read during a cocktail-hour memorial service, names of 84 veterans who had died since the last meeting were read. Soberingly, some of those named were relatively young, killed in action during the Iowa National Guard's 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT) deployment to Afghanistan.

The names included that of U.S. Army Sgt. Devin A. Snyder, 20, of Cohockton, N.Y. Snyder was active-duty soldier who had been attached to Iowa's 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment (1-133rd Inf.) operating in Laghman Province, Afghanistan. She and three other military police were killed when an Improvised Explosive Device (I.E.D.) denotated outside a Laghman Povince village. The association historian speculated that Snyder was the first female Red Bull soldier to have been killed in action.

Also killed in that June 2011 event were three other members of the 164th Military Police Company, 793rd Military Police Battalion, 3rd Maneuver Enhancement Brigade:
Four other Red Bull names hit closer to home:
Some of the older 34th Inf. Div. soldiers hope to return the association to its former glories, particularly when it comes to reunion attendance. In an age of fractious social media, geographic dispersion, and declining interest in formal groups, however, maybe that's an old paradigm--an example of "fighting the last war." Merely getting together for an annual round of drinks and war stories won't cut it. There must be ways to honor, preserve, and celebrate Red Bull history--to make it relevant for recently retired veterans, today's soldiers, and tomorrow's recruits.

Rather than continually revisiting the past, the 34th Inf. Div. Assn. could maintain its relevance by changing task and purpose. Here are some quick ideas:
  • Conduct oral history or genealogy workshops for soldiers, veterans, and families.
  • Coordinate youth- or community-focused history education programs.
  • Underwrite permanent / traveling museum exhibits regarding 34th Inf. Div. history.
The memories of soldiers--young or old--never die. They just fade away.

But only if we let them.


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