SAN MATEO, CALIFORNIA -- Soldiers of 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), joined citizens, veterans, and key leaders of nine Californian cities to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of one of the division's longest supporting communities, March 22-26 2018.
The 2018 visit was timed to reflect the original date of 1968, when the City of San Mateo, California, adopted A Co. "Abu," 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st BCT during the height of the Vietnam War.
San Mateo provided cards, letters and care packages from residents and school children, delivered to the Abu Soldiers during a time when the actions in Vietnam were unpopular with many Americans. First Brigade spent more continuous time in Vietnam than any other Army unit, and the city's support throughout that time culminated with a welcome home parade in 1972 -- the only city in America to do so.
"This weekend was a good reminder of that powerful bond between American citizens and their Soldiers," said Col. Derek Thomson, 1st BCT commander. "It was a celebration of a relationship that began when societally it was not very popular to recognize the military. This community took a stand against that. They stood up and said 'These soldiers are our sons and daughters and we want to celebrate them."
Events during this year's trip, dubbed "Operation Eagle Visit," included dinners with citizens, veterans and key government and business leaders; a nine-city central parade and festival; and events to honor military veterans and memorials.
"Before this I have never had much interaction with the military," said San Mateo Mayor Rick Bonilla. "It was an honor and very touching to look into the eyes of the Soldiers that are serving our country every day, going to difficult places in the world and doing dangerous work in the line of duty. They are defending us, our country and our people. It was very moving to all of us."
As Soldiers arrived to the San Francisco Airport March 22, they were welcomed by a large crowd, cheering and waving U.S. flags. A bagpiper in his official regalia played boisterous tunes, as the Soldiers shook hands and hugged members of the crowd.
"It was a great display of the goodwill of a community, who genuinely supports their military and genuinely desire a connection with the Soldiers of their Army," said Thomson.
News crews were excited to interview several members of the 1st BCT, "Bastogne," who grew up in California. Spc. Ryan Karim, B Co., 1-327th Inf., grew up in the neighboring city of San Jose. He found that helped him make a strong connection with everyone he met during the visit.
"They were really excited to find out I grew up around here, to put a name to the face of a Soldier for all the support they've given us," said Karim. "This trip was about the 50th anniversary of a long-standing friendship between the military and civilian world."
That evening, the current 101st Soldiers met with more than 50 Vietnam veterans who served in the 101st Abn. Div., some of whom had come to California from as far as New Hampshire. The combined group gathered in the San Mateo County Museum to hear welcoming remarks from the city council and a representative for the office of Congresswoman Jackie Speier, who delivered a signed proclamation honoring the anniversary.
"It was amazing to see all the veterans looking at mementos from their past history," said Pfc. George Prado, A Co., 1-327th Inf. "I spoke with a gentlemen who showed me all of the pictures he and his buddies were in. It was really heart-warming to see how close they are and how much they enjoyed talking to us."
The next day began early, as Soldiers gathered in the city's central park to lead an Army workout session, "Sore with the Eagles." More than 100 residents, police officers and children followed instructions during pushups, burpees and jogging with the troops. The next stop was the San Mateo Police Department for a tour of the station and breakfast with police officers and veterans.
"This relationship brings a layer of depth, and respect and honor to our city and the people of this city. It helps define who we are," said Bonilla. "We are the city who stepped up when many people had negative opinions of veterans. We embraced our veterans, and have kept that for 50 years."
The events of March 22 continued as Soldiers dispersed to nine separate cities in San Mateo County, all of whom have also adopted 101st units in the years since 1968. San Carlos, Atherton, Foster City, Belmont, San Bruno, Millbrae, Burlingame and Hillsborough hosted small groups of Soldiers for events such as lunch with the city council, dedication of veterans' memorials, basketball games with local school children, and visits to local historic sites.
"The trip was about showing our appreciation for everything they've done for us in the past 50 years, and for me the past four years," said Spc. Shawn Dove, A Co., 1-327th Inf. "I've been to Afghanistan and Africa with this company and it was really cool to see the support [San Mateo] gave us through those deployments. We wrote thank you cards but you don't always know if they make it, on this trip it really meant a lot to be able to say thank you in person."
Others got a glimpse of the area's booming tech growth with meetings at YouTube and Walmart.com headquarters. Many cities included interaction with their police officers, and several Soldiers left with business cards and potential plans for after their time in the Army. At every stop, Soldiers spent time discussing and sharing their Army experiences, and answering numerous questions from residents curious about the 101st Airborne "Screaming Eagles" in an area with little military presence.
"They (the citizens) want to stay connected whether it's during a deployment or in peacetime," said Thomson. "We also want to do everything we can to maintain that relationship, to engage and inform them about the Soldiers of the Army and who we are."
The Bastogne Soldiers began their day March 23 by forming in downtown San Mateo, to march the streets in a parade replicating the 1972 Vietnam homecoming parade. They were joined by dozens of 101st Abn. Div. veterans, who marched in that original parade, as well as more than 50 other entries to include other veterans groups from the area, military service organizations, children's groups and many more. The parade route ended in the city's central park and Soldiers and service members of all generations had an opportunity to enjoy a BBQ lunch and share stories with each other and with the citizens of San Mateo.
"My favorite part of the trip was that time after the parade," said Prado. "All of the veterans and everyone in the parade got to relax in the park, eat lunch, and spend a few hours telling stories and really getting to know each other."
The evening concluded with a formal dinner between the active-duty Soldiers, the veterans, and representatives from the nine host cities. Speakers from each group made remarks during the dinner.
"I thought the speeches were very moving and very powerful, they gave an extra meaning to what we do every day," said Karim. "It made me realize that the names of Soldiers may change but who a Soldier is doesn't change. It could be from five days ago or 50 years ago but we're part of a brotherhood."
The final day of the trip had a somber tone, as the Screaming Eagle Soldiers joined several other organizations to observe National Medal of Honor Day, March 25, at the Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, California. There are 16 MOH recipients laid to rest at the cemetery. Soldiers heard descriptions of the recipients' accomplishments, music from several local organizations, and official remarks from the mayor and 1st BCT leadership.
Before departing the cemetery, Soldiers paid their respects at a smaller ceremony at the gravesite of Sgt. Joe Artavia, A Co. 1-327th Inf., killed in action in 1968. His sister, Linda Patterson, was instrumental in building the original relationship between the city and the 101st, and has devoted her life to helping spread these connections across the United States to "adopt" military units of all branches. Currently-serving Soldiers and veterans alike joined her at the gravesite to honor his sacrifice and recognize all of the unit's fallen from the Vietnam era.
"It was very emotional," said Patterson, describing the ceremony. "Inwardly I was talking to Joe and telling him how he started something incredible. 50 years later his fellow Soldiers were still coming to honor him. I believe he was there with a big smile."