99th RSC Public Affairs
Six men hailing from Belgium, England and the United States have received the Decoration for Distinguished Civilian Service for their dedication and service to veterans of the 99th Infantry Division.
While their nationalities are as diverse as the Allied Forces that fought World War II, they share the same vision – to pay homage to the 99th Infantry Division soldiers and the sacrifices they made as part of America’s “Greatest Generation.”
The first four awarded were Belgians Jean-Philippe Speder, Jean-Louis Seel, Marc Marique and Jean-Luc Menestrey, better known to members of the 99th ID as “The Diggers.” This well-earned nickname refers to the way in which these four men have spent much of their free time during the past couple decades – digging in the Ardennes to search for the remains of the known 33 missing-in-action 99th ID Soldiers.
Many field-expedient gravesites had to be abandoned when the 99th ID was ordered to retreat to defensive lines in the opening days of the Battle of the Bulge. Now, nearly 70 years later, finding these graves is a monumental challenge.
Speder and Seel began collecting war artifacts in the forest in 1979, but after finding their first set of human remains, the pair shifted their focus.
“From there on, it was a turning point, because it was no longer a rusty grenade or a rusty helmet, it was the unique trace of a human being,” Speder explained. “There was a man, there was a story, there was a family.”
To date, “The Diggers” have exhumed and repatriated the remains of 12 of these fallen warriors.
“Each recovery is special and unique,” Speder said.
Speder and Seel head The Diggers MIA Project, while Menestrey and Marique are part of the forensic archaeological team and also run a museum dedicated to the Battle of the Bulge. For these four men, searching for the remains of those who helped fight for their country is an honor.
“We heard great stories from our parents and grandparents, so we really fell in love with the American soldiers. They were the liberators,” Seel said.
The Diggers received their awards July 22 during the 62nd Annual 99th Infantry Division Association Convention in Overland Park KS, along with Bill Warnock, an American freelance writer, Battle of the Bulge scholar and author of the book, “The Dead of Winter: The Battlefield Investigation for Missing GIs Lost During the Bulge,” which provided a detailed account of the painstaking forensic work by all involved in the project.
Unable to attend the reunion in July, William Cavanagh received the decoration Nov. 4, 2011 during a small ceremony at a hotel in London, England. Cavanagh is a Battle of the Bulge historian, tour guide and author of the book, “Dauntless: A History of the 99th Infantry Division.” The ceremony was organized by Cavanagh’s son and daughter, Karl and Fiona, and retired Sgt. Maj. Joe Keirn, former command sergeant major of the 99th Regional Readiness Command. A group of 99th Infantry Division veterans also travelled to London for the ceremony, and an active Army lieutenant colonel assigned to the U.S. Embassy attended as well.
The Decoration for Distinguished Civilian Service is a Department of the Army public service award equivalent to the Meritorious Service Medal and signed by the Secretary of the Army. It is awarded to those civilians who provide distinguished service that makes a substantial contribution to the accomplishment of the Army’s mission. The decoration includes a gold medal, lapel button, and a signed citation certificate.