FORT DRUM, N.Y. (May 20, 2019) -- The Greater Watertown North Country Chamber of Commerce hosted a luncheon May 17 to thank Soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division (LI) and Fort Drum for their service to the nation and the strong partnership between the military and civilian communities.

The Armed Forces Day Luncheon is an annual event that brings representatives from the business sector, elected and public officials, and invited guests together to get to know some of the service members who live and work in the community.

"The North Country is proud to be the home of the Fort Drum installation, and we are fortunate to house the men and women serving our country - with family and friends woven into our communities and strengthening our economies," said Kylie Peck, chamber president.

The North Country-Fort Drum region recently was named one of five "Great American Defense Communities" for 2019, a program sponsored by USAA to award military communities and regions that have focused on improving quality of life for service members, veterans and their families.

Fritz Keel, executive director for Advocate Drum, said that those selected for this award - which is in its fourth year - represent the very best examples of what communities can do to create great places for military families to thrive.

"When I listened to the stories from the class of 2018, I immediately knew that the North Country had to be nominated this year," he said.

Keel said that when the 10th Mountain Division (LI) made its home at Fort Drum nearly 35 years ago, a plan was developed to seamlessly integrate the military community into the North Country. Instead of opting to build schools and a hospital on post, outside communities expanded their infrastructure to accommodate the educational, medical, housing and recreational needs of Army families.

"It is truly an incredible story of inclusion and integration," said Keel, former deputy commander for 10th Mountain Division Artillery. "We submitted the application and learned last fall that because of this unique partnership and the best practices employed by the North Country communities to support the Soldiers, family members and civilians assigned to Fort Drum, that the North Country was selected as one of five communities across the Department of Defense as a 'Great American Defense Community' for 2019."

The challenge, Keel said, is to continue looking for innovative ways to make the North Country even better.

"Having an installation like Fort Drum in our community is a privilege, not a right, and we must always be looking for ways to further support it and ensure that the North Country remains a welcoming environment for Soldiers and their family members," he said.

Keel said that there are three areas that can serve to accomplish that mission: environmental stewardship; expanding educational opportunities for children and adults; and creating more employment options available for spouses, transitioning service members and retirees.

Maj. Gen. Brian J. Mennes, 10th Mountain Division (LI) and Fort Drum commander, expressed his appreciation for the post's neighbors and said that he is grateful for their support to the military.

Mennes said that he recently met with family members of deployed Soldiers and, over the course of a meal, he felt the strength of community among them.

"I was so impressed with the friendship that I saw," he said. "Their description of living on post and off post and about the community that they share was impressive," he said. "I think it is inspirational to us that we have folks like you."