The 62nd annual convention of the 99th Infantry Division Association drew to a close
July 23 with a reception and banquet.
The 78th Army Band sounded mess call and sergeants-at-arms, Jesse Coulter and Howard Bowers advanced the colors. The band played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag was recited in unison.
President Phil Benefiel welcomed everyone. In accordance with association tradition, the well-aged bottle of cognac that had been passed from president to president was opened and all veterans were invited to come forward to drink a toast to all who were part of the 99th Infantry Division Association.
Chaplain Arnold Taylor gave the invocation.
Following the meal, Benefiel introduced those seated at the head table. All veterans were recognized, as were all Purple Heart recipients. Benefiel asked all past members of the Checkerboard Chorus to stand. Chorus director Bert Burda was recognized and he, in turn recognized Stewart Boone and Herm Saunders as accompanists.
Special Belgian friends, Marcel and Mathilde Schmetz (the M&Ms) were introduced. The couple operates the Remember Museum in Thirimont, Belgium. Mathilde offered thanks to the association for allowing them to attend the convention.
She said during the war, there were soldiers in every home in their town. “The soldiers never forgot the kindness of our people during the war,” she said, “so we remember them with our museum.” The couple also is involved with the war orphans program and welcome wounded warriors in their home.
“We realize freedom is not free and we don’t forget,” she concluded. “So, God bless America and God bless Belgium.”
Benefiel welcomed Jean-Philippe Speder, Jean-Louis Seel, Marc Marique and Jean-Luc Menestrey, also known as the Diggers.
“We are grateful for the work they have done,” Benefiel said. “They are true volunteers.”
A special awards presentation was conducted by MG Razz Waff, 99th Regional Support Command, in which he presented the Decoration for Distinguished Service to Speder, Seel, Marique, Menestrey and Bill Warnock for their service and dedication to the 99th Infantry Division. (See story elsewhere in this issue.)
MG Waff shared remarks with the audience:
“Good evening and thank you for giving me the opportunity to be here with you tonight. It’s an honor to have the chance to be a part of this wonderful reunion.
“With me this evening are a number of key people from your successor 99th, the 99th Regional Support Command, now headquartered at Fort Dix NJ, after a number of years of being in the metro Pittsburgh area due to the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission. With me are Brigadier General Dan Ammerman, our Deputy Commanding General; CWO5 Vinnie Giordano, our Command Chief Warrant Officer; and Command Sergeant Major Rich Castelveter, our Command Sergeant Major.
“Also with me is the 78th Army Band. We’ve had many questions as to how we have had an active component band with us this weekend – perhaps from Fort Leavenworth – but let me assure you, these great bandsmen are Army Reserve Soldiers, all remarkably well-trained. To a person, almost all of them have a bachelor’s degree; more than half have master’s degrees; and a few have – or are darn close – to having doctorate degrees in music. With a bachelor’s degree, any or all of them could be Warrant Officer Bandmasters, or lieutenants or captains, but they have chosen to continue to be non-commissioned officers so they can keep doing what they enjoy the most – playing music, and playing it at events such as this.
“We have also had a few questions about the uniforms that we have been wearing, which is clearly a case of where the past is now the future. After a two-year study, the Army has decided to replace the green uniform that came into the inventory after your service in World war II with the classic Army Blue Uniform most commonly seen worn by the 3rd Infantry Regiment at ceremonies at the White House, Arlington National Cemetery and at presidential inaugurations and funerals. Part of the reasoning for this was to reduce the number of uniforms that soldiers, primarily lower ranking enlisted soldiers, would have to own and maintain. This uniform can be a daily office uniform with the shirt and pants, a business uniform such as we are wearing this evening, and with a bow tie it becomes a dress uniform, and can be worn with either a short sleeve or long sleeve shirt. The only other uniform that is then required is the combat uniform, which over the past few years has been the digitized green Army Combat Uniform – the ACUs – with suede boots. Simply stated, young soldiers now need to maintain only two uniforms, the classic Army Blue Uniform, now known as the Army Service Uniform – which with minor modifications can be worn in a number of different settings, and the ACUs. Gone are the green uniforms, and the white uniforms, which almost were never seen except at West Point graduations.
“With those introductory comments, let me now get to the main reason we are here tonight. You gentlemen who are our role models for today’s Army, and on whose shoulders we stand.
“It awes me to think that nearly seven decades ago, you men sitting before me were fighting your way across Germany – fighting for your very lives and, ultimately, your way of life. You helped stop a force of evil that was poised to spread across the Atlantic if left unchecked; for that, our nation will remain forever indebted to your bravery and self-sacrifice.
“I can only imagine the feelings and memories you men share, and how all those experiences must come to the fore each year when you travel from across the country to be reunited. The bond you share is something that can only be forged in the fires of combat, and something very few people will ever experience in their lifetimes. You are truly a “Band of Brothers,” and no amount of time or distance can ever take that away from you.
“While you have certainly earned the title – as originated by Tom Brokaw of NBC News – as “The Greatest Generation,” today’s soldiers are also proving their mettle serving in ongoing contingency operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, Guantanimo, and other areas across the globe. These men and women are carrying the torch that was first lit more than two and a quarter centuries ago when our fledgling nation fought for freedom from rule without representation; it’s a torch that you kept burning despite a fascist regime’s best effort to extinguish its flame.
“Indeed, liberty’s torch still burns bright in the hands of the young men and women in uniform who carry it around the world today to light the way to freedom.”
“As you well know – and as the M&Ms have told us consistently – freedom isn’t free. Many of your fellow soldiers never got to taste the fruits of freedom they fought so hard to defend. Their sacrifice – which is the ultimate sacrifice any soldier can make – will never be forgotten and it is event such as this that keep their memory alive. And we also must thank the Diggers for their remarkable labor of love in working to find and identify your missing colleagues.
“Since taking command of the 99th Regional Support Command this past October, I’ve had the unfortunate opportunity to approve two memorialization requests to name Army Reserve Centers for soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice in today’s wars. The Armed Forces Reserve Center in Ayer MA, near Fort Devens, will be named for Major David Connelly, who died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan in April 2005, while the Armed Forces Reserve Center in Newport RI, will be named in honor of Sgt. Michael Paranzino, who was killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in November 2010.
“As commanding general of the 99th Regional Support Command, it is my duty and privilege to take care of these fallen warriors by memorializing our facilities in their names. It is also my great responsibility to ensure the 51,000 Army Reserve Soldiers from the 99th’s 13-state area of responsibility in the mid-Atlantic and northeast – from Virginia up to Canada – have the latest and most technologically-advanced facilities in which to train and prepare for deployment when their nation calls.
“To that end, I have the honor of opening dozens of brand new, state-of-the-art Reserve Centers across the northeastern United States as part of the largest transformation the Army Reserve has undergone since World War II, a transformation driven by the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission.
‘These new facilities not only give our citizen-soldiers the best opportunity to train and prepare for war, but also allow us to close outdated and inefficient Reserve Centers. In doing so, we save thousands of dollars in sustainment, renovation and modernization costs, and instead, focuses those funds on other critical needs to modernize our infrastructure, procure new equipment, and better supports our soldiers as they prepare to meet 21st century threats.
“Having met the greatest threat to our nation in the 20th century, you are well aware of what it means to be a soldier and the strain it puts on families. To address this issue, we host a monthly comprehensive family reintegration program called “Operation Yellow Ribbon” with seven multi-faceted events to better prepare families for deployments, support them during their separations, and then bring them back together upon their soldier’s return. Additionally, our chaplain section hosts three models of Strong Bonds retreats – for couples, families and even singles – that help soldiers and their families work out issues, reconnect following deployments, and strengthen their relationships in many ways.
“As soldiers, we all realize the importance of our families – it is often for them, as much as for ourselves that we serve. To all the family members here tonight, a heartfelt thanks for the support you continue to give some 65 years after the last 99th soldiers returned from Europe to restart their lives. You continue to be an integral part of the 99th Infantry Division’s history, and I have no doubt that your contributions are appreciated every day by the veterans sitting at your side. And it is important to remember that you are still a part of our Army family, and will continue to be so, for you have more than earned that right, and the current 99th will not forget what you have provided for us, just as no child or grandchild forgets what their parents or grandparents provided. I can speak to this first hand as the son of a World War II Navy veteran, and my grandfather was also in the Navy, as well as my dad’s three younger brothers, the youngest of which died as part of the Navy Armed Guard on a Merchant Marine tanker torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of New York City. We appreciate your sacrifices, and they will not be forgotten, for you remain in a very clear and direct way our 99th family.
“It’s the veterans to whom we all owe a debt that can never be fully repaid. The best we can do is honor your past deeds and give today’s soldiers the best opportunity to create a legacy of their own following in your footsteps. As the commanding general of the 99th RSC, I am proud to give soldiers that opportunity, proud to serve in the same Army in which you once served so heroically, and proud to wear the Checkerboard patch of the 99th.
“Thank you and enjoy the rest of your evening.
Benefiel introduced Mary Jean Eisenhower, CEO of People to People International and granddaughter of Dwight Eisenhower.
Eisenhower read a letter from her father, John Eisenhower, author of “The Bitter Woods,” who sent his warm regards to all 99th veterans and their guests. She regaled the audience with stories of her father and grandfather and explained the mission of People to People International.
At the end of her remarks, Benefiel presented her with a plaque from the 99th.
Sam Notkin of Dublin, Ireland, was recognized once again as the member coming the greatest distance and F/393 received the monetary prize for having the largest group of members in attendance.
50/50 winners were announced: Ruth Irace, $250; Marian Miller, $100; Bob Bossler, $100; Thor Ronningen, $100; Rubin Bokoff, $100; David Kiley, $50; and Bruno Ceccatti, $50.
The colors were retired.
The evening concluded with music by the 78th Army Band.