10 October 2012

Military Alumni Groups Serve to Keep History Alive

34th Inf. Div. Association member Bill Baker addresses a "Gathering of
Red Bulls," during the 34th Infantry Division Association's recent
65th Annual Reunion, Johnston, Iowa Oct. 5-7. Photo by Ashlee Lolkus
In World War II, Bill Baker of Indianapolis, Ind. was a member of the 185th Field Artillery (185th F.A.). He had been a switchboard operator for a newspaper company when he voluntarily enlisted in the Army. "I figured, 'Well, I'll try something similar,'" he says. He ended up in Army communications, someone trained to install and maintain field telephones.

Baker started his Army career at Camp Crowder, Mo. "There, they were asking people to join the Air Force. I had always, as a kid, wanted to do that. I admired those guys and their planes. I passed the test, and eventually got down there to Kelly Field. I washed out, much to my chagrin. I had some health problems—sinuses, and you can't have problems with that up in the air—and so they sent me back to the Signal Corps. I got overseas in 27 days—in a ship packed with guys, unbelievable situation, ran out of water, didn't know where I was going—and I found myself in Italy."

"They needed someone up there on the line," he says, "so they sent me up there to the 34th Infantry ... Great bunch of guys. I was a wireman, so they put me on the line with the [Forward Observers]. That's where I spent all my time. Luckily, I survived." Baker left the service in 1945 as a staff sergeant, a section chief in the 185th FA.

There are hundreds of stories like Baker's, but fewer every year.

More than 60 citizen-soldiers, veterans, and family members of the 34th Infantry Division Association attended the organization's 65th Annual Reunion last weekend, Oct. 5-6, 2012. The association's Des Moines Chapter hosted this year's event.

Two former U.S. Army Signal soldiers,
Bill Baker and Randy "Sherpa" Brown.
Photo by Ashlee Lolkus
At the "Gathering of Red Bulls"—a Friday-morning reunion tradition in which attendees informally introduce themselves and tell stories—the energy in the room feels a little diminished. The spark is still there, but it's getting harder to stoke the old fires.

This is the first reunion that Baker has attended.

There are a handful of younger Red Bull soldiers who are also present, but, as a whole, the herd is pretty gray. Iraq- and Afghan-era soldiers and veterans who might be attracted by history, camaraderie, or remembrance are either unaware of the group's existence; unable to attend due to family, church, drill, and other commitments; or haven't yet been away from the Army long enough to realize they miss it.

Even the original "Red Bull" soldiers of the association, some die-hards note, didn't start meeting formally until a few years after their war had ended. They're hoping that the massive and multiple "Red Bull" mobilizations of the 21st century—since 2001, there have been at least five brigade-or-higher deployments from Minnesota and Iowa, and even more smaller-sized missions—will one day result in more attendees.

"Old soldiers never die," U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur told Congress before he retired, "they just fade away." So do many of their organizations.

An estimated 790 World War II veterans die each day, reason enough for historians to lament over the stories that are being lost on a daily basis. As noted in an Aug. 25, 2011 newspaper article, many veterans organizations are choosing to get out of the reunion business. The alumni of the 84th Infantry "Railsplitters" Division, for example, decided that 2011's event would be their last. Recently, the national U.S. Submarine Veterans of World War II took similar action.

Even the 38-year-old Tri-State Chapter of the 34th Inf. Div. Association has decided to dissolve. Only three WWII-era veterans attended the chapter's reunion last summer. The 76 Tri-State members, dispersed across states east of the Mississippi River, will become part of the association's at-large national membership in late 2012 or early 2013.

The national Red Bull association, for now, seems healthy enough. There are 759 members, of which 390 are "life" members. The membership dues are kept low to encourage membership, but barely cover costs. In the past year, the organization operated at a slight loss. There's still money in the checking account, however, and savings enough for a rainy day. The group doesn't over-exert itself. It holds an annual national reunion, and sends memorial wreaths and flowers to three overseas cemeteries. It maintains a website, and sends out newsletter three or four times a year. So, while there's concern about the future of the organization, hope is still a viable course of action.

The Red Bull's historically midwestern roots, after all, continue to result in new potential members. Unlike units that disappeared when the Army downsized after World War II, the Red Bull Division continues as an actively drilling and deploying entity. (Granted, the patch did go away between 1963 and 1991, during which time many Iowa and Minnesota National Guard soldiers were part of the 47th Infantry "Viking" Division.) Fathers, sons, mothers, and daughters continue to join and serve in Red Bull patch-wearing units in Minnesota, Iowa, and North Dakota, as well as affiliated brigades in Idaho and Wisconsin. Maj. Gen. Richard C. Nash, the adjutant general of the state of Minnesota and a former Red Bull division and brigade commander, has recently encouraged the creation of a new Minnesota-based chapter of the 34th Inf. Div. Association.

A list of objectives found in 34th Inf. Div. Association's by-laws starts with this mission: "To foster and perpetuate the camaraderie of brothers-in-arms of those who have served with the 34th Infantry Division since its organization." There may be a laundry list of projects to do in the future, given sufficient time, energy, and money—history books and workshops, monuments and movies, heritage tours and museum displays—but all things flow from this first statement of purpose.

Benjamin Tupper, author of "Greetings from Afghanistan" and "Dudes of War," recently wrote about his experiences attending the annual reunion of 42nd Infantry Division veterans. Tupper is a veteran of the Afghan War, and is still in uniform as a member of the New York National Guard:
[W]hen we gather, the discussion will eventually return to the disparity in how the greatest generation and the latest generation of veterans cope with the after-effects of combat. The WW2 vets wonder why they could go off and beat Hitler with his tanks, Luftwaffe, and naval vessels, and come home emotionally fine. Why, they ask, are my peers, who are fighting a ragtag band of Taliban with rusty rifles and homemade booby traps, coming home with PTSD and other mental health problems in much higher numbers?

It was during one of these very discussions that a regular attendee at our reunion, a WW2 vet we call Shorty, put a big crack in the stoic mythology of WW2 veterans unencumbered by the ghosts of war.

Shorty confessed to our group that he had been plagued by nightmares for years when he came home from WW2, but had kept it a secret. This news was a surprise to everyone present, because Shorty had never mentioned this before to the group, and despite his diminutive nickname, he was nothing short of a combat decorated hero. I think we all had always taken Shorty to be one of those stalwart guys who successfully packed away his traumatic memories when he came home from war. [...]

We knew Shorty had been battling a handful of debilitating medical ailments for years, and it impressed everyone that he still had the stamina to travel across the country every year to reunite with his wartime buddies. But for me, what stood out most was Shorty’s example of resilience; a man who stared down terminal illness, the German Army, and the equally formidable ghosts of war, and lived to tell the tale.
Iraq veteran and writer Matt Farwell has described making similar connections with veteran and journalist Bob Kotlowitz, who wrote a military memoir titled "Before Their Time." Here's something Farwell said about their relationship:
Bob’s kind ear and understanding were a lifesaver. We swapped stories and I peppered him with hard questions and listened closely to his hard answers and advice. Here’s a representative sample off the top of my head.

Me: “Does it ever really go away?”
Bob: “No. But you learn to deal with it.”
Me: “I just don’t want to be this angry and bitter and sad in 40 years, the veteran stereotype, you know?”
Bob: “I don’t think you will. I hope not.”
As more old soldiers fade away, experiences such as those of Tupper and Farwell will become all the more rare. That's too bad, because no one can talk to a soldier like another soldier. Military alumni associations aren't the VA Medical Center. They're not the local VFW or American Legion hall. Maybe those are good things. Reunions can be safe, apolitical, multi-generational places in which to share and remember experiences. They can connect us with our collective past. They can also inspire our collective future.

In a dinner speech last Saturday, Command Sgt. Major Joel Arnold, now the top enlisted soldier in the 34th Inf. Div., recalled that he had first come to a Red Bull reunion as a battalion sergeant major. It was just prior to shipping out with Iowa's 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment (1-133rd Inf.) in 2005. The "Ironman" battalion was soon to be part of the Minnesota National Guard's mobilization of 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division (1-34th BCT). At 22 months, 16 of which were in Iraq, it would become the longest deployment of any U.S. Army unit to Iraq.

"We got to meet some of these fine troopers, and especially to talk with some of the older soldiers and members of the association," says Arnold. "We really made a great connection. They really impressed upon me the importance of the Red Bull legacy. Every conversation I had with people at the time carried with it the same message: 'When you go over there, make us proud.'"

"That simple message has been one that has stayed with me through two subsequent deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and it's a message that I've related to countless soldiers at the battalion, brigade, and now the division level," he says.

Recently, I came across this quote from Michael Norman's 1990 memoir of Vietnam, "These Good Men: Friendships Forged from War." It resonates with me, because it speaks of trust, and memory, and reunion.
I now know why men who have been to war yearn to reunite. Not to tell stories or look at old pictures. Not to laugh or weep. Comrades gather because they long to be with the men who once acted at their best; men who suffered and sacrificed, who were stripped of their humanity. I did not pick these men. They were delivered by fate and the military. But I know them in a way I know no other men. I have never given anyone such trust. They were willing to guard something more precious than my life. They would have carried my reputation, the memory of me. It was part of the bargain we all made, the reason we were so willing to die for one another. As long as I have my memory, I will think of them all, every day. I am sure that when I leave this world, my last thought will be of my family and my comrades. ... Such good men.
We were Red Bull soldiers once, and young. We remember each other when we were at our best, and when the times were at their worst. We tell stories about each other, and about those who are no longer with us. We compare notes between generations, but do not envy each others' experiences. You had it worse that we did, some say. It does not matter if they are right. The conversations matter more than the conclusions.

Think of us all, every day. Make us proud.

"Attack! Attack! Attack!"

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