FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas -- To coincide with the Army's Birthday and concluding the day's events veterans, civilians and Family members gathered at a place of remembrance, the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery June 12, for a traditional wreath laying ceremony to remember and honor Sgt. Maj. Leon Van Autreve, the fourth Sergeant Major of the Army.

Van Autreve served as Sergeant Major of the Army from July 1973 to June 1975; he died March 14, 2002, in San Antonio.

During his tenure, Van Autreve made the noncommissioned officer his highest priority, by increasing the professional standards for the NCO and taking an active role in the development of the NCO education system.

Command Sgt. Maj. Howard Riles, Fort Sam Houston and U.S. Army Medical Department Center and School, welcomed the crowd to the ceremony in the blistering 100 plus degree weather.

"Sergeants major, fellow noncommissioned officers, other distinguished guests, Family and friends. Thank you for joining us today to honor the life and distinguished service of Sergeant Major of the Army, Leon L. Van Autreve," Riles said.

"With 2009 dedicated as the 'Year of the NCO,' I can only imagine that if he was alive today how he would feel, and what he would say. Amongst the emotions of honor and pride, I think he would still express, that we must continue to press on, and show the world how valuable we are as the 'Backbone of the Army.'

"It fills my heart," said Rita Van Autreve. "Whenever I come to this ceremony, I've been attending these every year since he passed (Van Autreve). This is an honor; I cannot thank you all enough."

The Army's birthday was as befitting a day as any to honor Autreve, a Soldier and a remarkable NCO. It was also a special day in the Year of the NCO to pay tribute to five other exceptional NCOs who lay interred in close proximity to him at the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.

Some two hundred and thirty-four years ago, the United States Army was created and committed to defend our Nation. From that beginning, grew the ranks of the NCO, the backbone of the Army, forever helping facilitate the promise to protect and defend our country everyday.

Medal of Honor recipients; Staff Sgt, Lucian Adams, Sgt. Jose M. Lopez, Tech. Sgt. Cleto Rodriguez, Master Sgt. Roy P. Benavidez, and Warrant Officer (then Sgt. 1st Class) Louis Rocco, heard the call and answered it with their acts of bravery and selfless sacrifice.

Staff Sgt. Lucian Adams, 30th Infantry, 3rd Infantry Division, near St. Die, France, Oct. 28, 1944, braved the concentrated fire of machineguns in a lone assault on a force of German troops. In the course of the action, he personally killed nine Germans, eliminated three enemy machineguns, vanquished a specialized force, which were armed with automatic weapons and grenade launchers, cleared the woods of hostile elements and reopened severed supply lines to the assault companies of his battalion.

Sgt. Jose M. Lopez, from the 23rd Infantry, near Krinkelt, Belgium, Dec. 17, 1944, on his own initiative, carried his heavy machinegun from Company K's right flank to its left flank to protect it from advancing enemy infantry. Lopez's gallantry, on a seemingly suicidal mission, killed at least 100 of the enemy. He was almost solely responsible for avoiding Company K from being enveloped, and withdrawing successfully giving other forces coming up in support, time to build a line in which to repel the enemy drive.

Tech. Sgt. Cleto Rodriguez, (then private), U.S. Army, Company B, 148th Infantry, 37th Infantry Division, at Paco Railroad Station, Manila, Philippine Islands, Feb. 9, 1945, single-handedly killed six Japanese and destroyed a well-placed 20-mm gun. With outstanding weaponry skill, determination to destroy the enemy, and heroic courage in the face of tremendous odds and on two occasions, Rodriguez significantly aided the advancement of troops in Manila.

Master Sgt. Roy P. Benavidez, Detachment B-56, 5th Special Forces Group, Republic of Vietnam, West of Loc Ninh, Republic of Vietnam, May 2, 1968, gallantly volunteered to join his comrades exposing himself to constant enemy fire; refusing to stopped, despite numerous severe wounds, saving the lives of at least eight men. His fearless personal leadership, tenacious devotion to duty, and extremely valorous actions in the face of overwhelming odds, were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service, and reflected the utmost credit upon him and the United States Army.

Warrant Officer Louis Rocco (then Sergeant First Class), U.S. Army, Advisory Team 162, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Northeast of Katum, Republic of Vietnam, May 24 1970, distinguished himself when he volunteered to accompany a medical evacuation team on an urgent mission to evacuate eight, critically wounded Army of the Republic of Vietnam personnel. His bravery under fire and intense devotion to duty were directly responsible for saving three of his fellow Soldiers from certain death. His unparalleled bravery in the face of enemy fire, his complete disregard for his own pain and injuries, and his performance were far above-and-beyond the call of duty, in keeping with the highest traditions of self-sacrifice and courage of the military service.

Van Autreve, Adams, Lopez, Rodriguez, Benavidez and Rocco are NCOs who embody the word backbone with their displays of moral strength and fiber in which they carried out their duties, they were not only leaders, they were also guardians of the corps.

"It is important that we carry on in respect to Sgt. Major Van Autreve's position in regards to the the NCO corps, 'The Backbone of the Army,' and its importance to the U.S. Army." We cannot ever use that phrase, the backbone of the Army as a saying; we are the great Army of today because of the NCO corps, and what they do for us each and everyday. To be here today with the Van Autreve's Family and to honor him on this occasion is special and certainly heartwarming," said Commanding General Russell Czerw, Fort Sam Houston and U.S. Army Medical Department Center and School.

The wreath laying was just one of many events that took place on Fort Sam Houston June 12, to celebrate the Army's Birthday.