JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (Aug. 8, 2013) -- They gathered to socialize, swap stories and, perhaps most importantly, reconnect. Some cared for the wounded on Omaha Beach, Normandy, France. Others trekked alongside their brothers through the jungles of Vietnam. A few even patrolled the Eastern Afghanistan countryside. They were "Back Lions" and "Bandidos" and former Danger 6s and while their service spanned decades, they all had one thing in common: They served with the nation's first division, the 1st Infantry Division.

More than 300 veterans spanning World War II to the present-day Army gathered for the 95th annual Society of the 1st Infantry Division Reunion from July 31 to Aug. 3, 2013, in Jacksonville, Fla.

Between sightseeing tours and events, veterans gathered in command posts designated by regiment.

Retired Col. Kenneth Cassels is an honorary colonel of the 16th Infantry Regiment and joined a large contingent of Soldiers who served with the regiment, including Sgt. Michael Sanford, at the reunion. Sanford is a tanker in the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Inf. Div., and the division's non commissioned officer of the year. Cassels commanded the battalion during the Vietnam War.

"I had the best Soldiers in the world. I'm sure that he's one of them today," Cassels said of Sanford. "Yeah, I was very proud of all the Soldiers I led over there."

Cassels said he maintains close ties with the battalion, having established a connection with its current commander, Lt. Col. Roger Crombie.

"Col. Crombie is one that I'm particularly proud of right now," Cassels said.

Among the reunion's other attendees were World War II and 16th Infantry Regiment veterans Charles Shay and Ray Lambert, both of whom were medics who stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day. Shay was later taken prisoner by German forces. Lambert went on to take part in two other invasions. Also representing the 16th Infantry Regiment was Harley Reynolds, the first man through the wire June 6, 1944, on Omaha Beach.

Representing today's 1st Infantry Division were Sanford and Spc. Aaron Duncan, combat medic, 4th Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Airborne Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division and the Soldier of the year.

Hanging out with the veterans was simply amazing and was both elating and humbling, Duncan said.

"I was in awe of their acts and experiences, yet they seemed more impressed by my service than I of theirs, which simply blew my mind," he added. "They made me want to live up to their standard."

Other current Soldiers included Maj. Gen. Paul Funk II, commanding general, 1st Infantry Division and Fort Riley, and 1st Lt. Nathan Rimpf, former infantry platoon leader, Company D, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment., 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team.

Rimpf, a double amputee, was leading his Soldiers in Eastern Afghanistan when they encountered an improvised explosive device in July 2012. Hundreds of "Big Red One" veterans and their loved ones rose to their feet and applauded Rimpf when his presence was announced at the reunion's final event, a banquet the night of Aug. 3.

Funk was the banquet's guest speaker and told the crowd they celebrated 96 years of bravery, responsibility and being on point for the nation.

"These attributes have enabled our storied division to carve out a unique place in the annals of history," Funk said. "It has done so through the proud heritage kept alive by each of you and by those who fought in and adapted to each passing era our military has been asked to take on. It is an honor to stand among so many of you who have paved the way to victory and who continue to embody the legacy of our nation's first division."

It is of the utmost importance to hear lessons learned from the men and women who learned them, Duncan said.

"Reunions like this give them the opportunity to impart that firsthand knowledge and even learn how we do things now," he said. "We should always support and respect those who pave the way for us."

Funk, who took command of the 1st Infantry Division in May, updated the veterans on what training and operations in which the 1st Airborne Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Sustainment Brigade, 4th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade and 75th Fires Brigade are engaged.

The 12-year global war on terror was complex but necessary, Funk said.

"Soldiers who have been serving in the Big Red One have been at the tip of the spear on the battlefield, in small villages, in major urban cities, across deserts and high in the mountains from Ramadi to Baghdad, from Kandahar to Khost."

The men and women of the 1st Infantry Division continue to stand "against our enemy and sacrifice for our way of life," Funk added.

Each of the veterans created part of the foundation from which the division is operating today, the general said.

"Your spirit within the organization has not left, and your wisdom allows for its continued success," he said. "Each member of the Victory Team looks back to our predecessors. Your duty and sacrifice serve as waypoints to help me keep the division at the forefront of our nation's might."

One is never too old to have what it takes to serve and never too old to have a good time, Duncan said.

"Hearing and seeing these vets speak so passionately gets me fired up," he said.

Duncan, who said he aspires to become an officer and registered nurse, said he learned the value of having his buddy's back.

"These guys have been through hell together and lived to tell about it," he said. "You can't ask for a better support system. They are the epitome of being brave, responsible and on point."

Next year's reunion is set for July 25 to 29, 2014, in Anaheim, Calif.

Page last updated Fri August 9th, 2013 at 12:01