A Fort Drum Icon: Retired colonel reflects on Army career, road to 10th Mountain Division and Fort
January 19, 2012
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Michael Plummer has been championing Fort Drum's progress since 1984, the year he played a role in bringing the 10th Mountain Division to a little-known Army training post in northern New York.
At the time, he was a colonel working at the Pentagon and arguing in a white paper for more light infantry units in the Army.
"The Army was heavy in those days," the 73-year-old recalled. "It was all armor, because we were going to fight the Russians."
Plummer, of course, got his wish; and even had a hand in making it happen.
His work at the Pentagon landed him at Fort Gillem, Ga., where a planning cell was assembled in August 1984 to find a home for a light infantry division capable of mountain warfare. Four locations, including Fort Drum, were being discussed as possibilities when the general in charge of forming the new division tasked Plummer with flying to northern New York to scope out the area.
Plummer said when he arrived, he was skeptical, to say the least.
"I was absolutely flabbergasted that we were going to put a mountain division in what was basically sandy, glacial plains," he said.
But further considerations, such as the installation's expansive training area and its ideal setting for cold-weather exercises, led the colonel to not only deliver a favorable report about Fort Drum but also to spark his ensuing love affair with the North Country.
Perhaps more than any other local resident during the last two decades, the friendly, gruff-voiced retired colonel has emerged as Fort Drum's unofficial, but consistent link to the surrounding community.
After his second retirement from active-duty service at Fort Drum in 1991, he settled in Watertown with his wife, Miriam, and four children, opened his own global consulting business, and began working vigorously to build bridges of understanding between the military and civilian communities.
In addition to serving with fellow citizens at the Watertown Rotary, Italian-American Club and other civic groups, Plummer volunteered his time alongside veterans.
He has dedicated decades to the Association of the United States Army, sitting on its national resolutions committee and lobbying Congress for better Soldier benefits, including salary, health care and retirement pay. He has also helped raise funds for the 10th Mountain Division College Scholarship Fund, which provides $5,000 scholarships to, as a first priority, Family Members of division Soldiers killed in action and Family Members of wounded war veterans.
Four years ago, he also assumed the duties of president of the National Association of the 10th Mountain Division.
"We are all a part of the community," Plummer said. "We all benefit from the community. And we all, therefore, should contribute to the community."
Of the many ways he has strived as a community member to support Soldiers, Plummer is probably proudest of his Adopt a Platoon program, which he launched in 1992. Now called Adopt a 10th Mountain Platoon, the initiative enlisted local support from organizations such as schools, churches or scout groups to send letters and care packages to deployed troops.
Plummer said the program, which won a Paul Newman award for community service during the mid-1990s, has adopted some 200,000 Soldiers from Fort Drum since it began and eventually spawned an entire "cottage industry" of such groups nationwide with service members of all branches of the service now sponsored by local communities.
Road to Army Infantry
In 1956, Plummer left San Francisco to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He said it was a discussion with his father, a World War II veteran and member of the original group of Soldiers that later formed the Army's Ranger regiment, that convinced him to turn down both the U.S. Naval Academy and the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Plummer had an obvious affinity with his father, who was just 15 and living during the Depression when he secured a seat on a train to an Army post in Kansas. He said after three years of currying mules in a Fort Riley stable, his father was promoted to private first class and issued a horse.
During his graduation qualifications, however, a fluke accident led to a unique future for the young private.
"(My father) sliced a watermelon with his saber, shot a target with his carbine, and at the third stage, as he's taking his pistol out, he shot his horse dead in the back of the head," Plummer said.
Instead of a court-martial, Army officials had the young muleskinner pay for the $200 horse by shipping him off to China, where the U.S. was providing support ahead of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Plummer said his father returned to the U.S. as a first sergeant and married before returning to Asia to help form Merrill's Marauders in India and Burma -- the unit that would eventually become the 75th Ranger Regiment.
After Chief Warrant Officer 4 Robert Joseph Plummer retired with more than 25 years of military service, his son soon followed in his footsteps.
Plummer said he initially went into the Signal Corps because he wanted a good job after the Army. But upon his arrival in Vietnam in 1963, Plummer was told no signal personnel were needed, and he was assigned as an adviser to a Ranger company.
"That's when I fell in love with the infantry," he said. "I knew it was what I wanted to do."
As a lieutenant out late one night with his mentors, Plummer said he hastily signed the back of a bar napkin after deciding to apply for the infantry. He said it was forwarded to personnel, and within 30 days, he was transferred.
During the next 30 years, Plummer served in infantry units at every level of the XVIII Airborne Corps, from company command at the 101st Airborne Division to battalion command at the 82nd Airborne Division to brigade command with the 10th Mountain Division (LI).
Road to Fort Drum
In the waning days of the Cold War, it became obvious the Army would be needed for contingency operations. Plummer said a light infantry division would be light enough to have boots on the ground within seven days of notification. Heavy follow-on forces would arrive later.
He said with that foresight, Army leaders diverted Brig. Gen. William "Bill" Carpenter from a prestigious assignment commanding the Berlin Brigade in Germany to instead plan, form, equip, train and lead a light infantry division capable of deploying anywhere in the world by 1988.
Carpenter headed to the Pentagon for briefings when he ran into Plummer. With a handshake, the two former West Point classmates closed a deal making Plummer the general's chief of staff in return for an opportunity to command one of the division's brigades.
Plummer said he arrived at Fort Drum his second time in December 1984 with the division's advance party. Carpenter arrived in January, and the division activation ceremony took place Feb. 13, 1985.
Plummer recalled that for three years, Carpenter, along with his wife, Toni, lived in a little cabin down on the Black River in the woods behind the old Officers' Club.
"Instead of having china and silver and tapestries (for her accommodations at the Berlin Brigade), Toni Carpenter lived in a one-bedroom cabin," he said. "What a great camper. She just put a smile on her face and drove on."
Although the bulk of the new division's Soldiers were slated for assignment at Fort Drum, without any hangars, all aviation assets had to be stationed at Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome. In addition, since there was not yet enough room at Fort Drum for all brigades, the 2nd Brigade -- the Commando Brigade -- was activated at Fort Benning, Ga.
"We were basically in three different locations in the beginning," said Plummer, who got his wish and assumed command of 2nd Brigade during its activation ceremony Oct. 7, 1985.
While he was still chief of staff, Plummer said he often sat down with Carpenter and the rest of the command group while everyone ruminated over how the new division might capture the kind of camaraderie that airborne Soldiers shared.
"Well, that first winter, when it was -40 degrees and the Soldiers were out there in their snow caves, and that fire team leader had to go around checking the ears and the nose and the fingers and the toes to make sure they weren't frostbitten, that electric thing happened," Plummer said.
"The same thing as when the jumpmaster checks you before you jump out of that airplane," he explained. "The Soldiers had to trust their leadership … and they'd follow them anywhere, because they could keep them alive. It wasn't combat. But you sit out there in that kind of cold -- that's life and death."
Plummer said because of the physical demands placed on Soldiers in the light infantry, they are a tough and resilient bunch.
"You go on a 26-mile march with a 50-pound rucksack, that's one thing," he said. "But you go someplace like Iraq and 140 degrees and you have a 100-pound rucksack with 50 pounds of body armor, plus ammunition and gear, that's a totally different thing.
"Yet, in the 10th Mountain Division, you have the highest re-enlistment rate and the highest re-enlistment rate for present-duty assignment. They want to stay with the Mountain; they know their best chance of coming back alive is to go with the professionals.
"Every unit in the Army represents the very best in the world," he added. "I think the 10th Mountain Division is the next higher step because of the demands we put on our noncommissioned officers and our junior officers and how well they respond."
Between 1985 and 1990, some $1 billion of construction went into Fort Drum. Post officials say about $250 million more poured into projects during the 1990s before another $2 billion doubled the size of the division through today.
Plummer estimated nearly $4 billion of infrastructure is currently in the ground at Fort Drum.
"And they are still building," he said. "And all of that (has) meant jobs, more money in the economy and big change for the North Country.
"Just look at the diversity in the faces of a local classroom," he said. "None of that was the case back in 1985. So we have a generation of students -- those (then) in kindergarten who are now college graduates -- who have had the benefit of that diversity that was not there before."
Plummer believes a tight interconnectedness that has developed between members of the local community and Fort Drum has to do with the high percentage of military retirees in the area.
"They are an economic, cultural and emotional treasure," he said. "They stay here, primarily because of the people, and the values of the people, which are so compatible with the military's values. This is where you want your kids to grow up and your grandchildren to grow up."
And for a retiree who chose to call the North Country home a long time ago, no greater honor can be attributed to him than to say he had a hand in forming the 10th Mountain Division (LI) at Fort Drum.
"It was just an electrifying experience to birth a division and watch that little baby grow," he said. "And then in 1991, to watch it deploy for Hurricane Andrew and get such a wonderful reputation. Then off to Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. And then, ever since 9/11, you've had that bouncing back and forth to Afghanistan, Iraq and the Horn of Africa.
"These guys have been all over the world," he said. "They have such a tremendous reputation of being able, through a whole spectrum of requirements, to produce well. And now, in the crucible of combat, they have demonstrated their abilities (again)."