HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Redstone Arsenal's senior commanding general had a message of appreciation and gratitude for the more than 700 business, community and military leaders attending the annual Armed Forces Celebration Week luncheon June 28.

Speaking at the Von Braun Center, Gen. Gus Perna, commander of the Army Materiel Command, thanked the local community for remaining steadfast in its support of the Armed Forces.

"That's what you are doing today. That's what you have done all week. That's what you do all year," Perna said. "Be proud of the effort that you give to thank Soldiers, Airmen, Marines, Sailors and Coast Guardmen, and most importantly the families. I'm grateful to be part of a community that does that naturally, a community that's at ease with thanking us. I just want to tell you thank you for what you do."

Perna's speech was his first at a large gathering during North Alabama's Armed Forces Celebration Week. In his 34 years of military service, he said, "I have never been anywhere where we've had Armed Forces week. This is the first time I've been part of this phenomenon. It's remarkable as a Soldier to see what the community is doing for us."

The week's events, which are planned and hosted by the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce's Armed Forces Celebration Week Committee, included a proclamation signing; Celebrate America concert, Concert in the Park and patriotic community concert by the 389th Army Materiel Command Band; Gold Star Family Reception; softball tournament and the luncheon.

Perna said it takes a total team approach to provide service members with the support they need. That holds true, too, for an installation of more than 40,000 government civilians and contractors. The June 27 incident of a reported active shooter, which turned out to be a false alarm, showcased that support, he said.

"Our community acted instantaneously to take care of our team. The number one priority of emergency personnel was the health and welfare of our workforce. I have trust and confidence in the systems, training and leaders on the ground to do what's right in taking care of civilians, Soldiers and families on Redstone Arsenal. Without your partnerships, we would not have been successful. There are lessons to be learned, and we will learn them to be better, to be stronger."

The theme for this year's Armed Forces Celebration Week was "Over There," in recognition of the 100 year anniversary of World War I. Referring to the theme, Perna talked about how the Army and war of yesterday is not much different from what it is today. While war is still chaotic, horrific and dangerous at all times, service members then and now who are raised on the common thread of communities like Huntsville and Madison and who come from all levels of income and education share the belief that they are responsible for protecting the way of life for the nation's citizens.
"They believe they are empowered to help those who can't help themselves," he said.

Perna mentioned the stories of four WWI veterans who all received the Medal of Honor for their courageous acts.

• Navy Lt. Edouard Izac from Kansas, a sailor on the U.S.S. President Lincoln, made five successful trans-Atlantic voyages during WWI before the Lincoln was attacked by German U-boats and sunk. Izac was captured and spent two years in a POW camp. He escaped, crossed enemy lines to safety and provided vital information that helped the U.S. Navy defeat Germany's U-boats.

• Marine Gunnery Sgt. Louis Cukela, an immigrant from Croatia, was pinned down with his company by German machine gun fire. Cukela crawled over a mile into enemy territory, killed the machine gun's crew and then used their hand grenades to destroy remaining enemy positions nearby.

• Marine Cpl. Jake Allex from Chicago took over command of his platoon after its leadership was killed or gravely wounded in a firefight with the German Army. Allex led his platoon in destroying German machine gun positions. Allex is credited with killing five enemy soldiers and taking 15 more prisoner, saving his platoon and accomplishing its mission.

• National Guard Lt. Erwin Bleckley, a bank teller from Wichita, Kansas, was an aerial observer and gunner who worked with his pilot to make several low level passes over enemy territory in search of a lost battalion. Despite sustaining serious damage to their plane, they continued until they found the lost battalion and got word of its location back to home base. Bleckley and his pilot were then killed by German small arms fire.

"When you think about who these men were, what does that say about the men, and now women, who come into our Armed Forces? They have a belief of caring for others. They demonstrate selfless service, courage, sense of duty. They have the courage to take care of those who can't take care of themselves," Perna said.

Connecting the past to the present, Perna said our Armed Forces and the communities who support them must be ready to respond to future wars.

"I have trust and confidence in our 2 million service members to do what we need them to do," he said. "We need your support, and it's got to be undaunting. We need it at all times."