FORT BENNING, Ga. – Ryan Young and his Natural Resources Management Branch teammates began their grid search on Lee Field to inform population estimates of gopher tortoises on Fort Benning, but what they found “sitting on the sand gleaming, in almost pristine condition” was a United States Military Academy at West Point 1945 graduate class ring. Young’s first thought was the ring, lost more than 74 years prior during a parachute jump, had to be returned to its owner somehow.
“I saw the West Point insignia on there and 1945 nonetheless,” said Young. “I recognized the historic significance, and being an Army brat and growing up in the Army, my father instilled a lot of great Army values in me, honor and respect and trying to treat people the way they want to be treated – I just knew I needed to try and get it back to the family.”
The Fort Benning Natural Resources Management Branch manages natural resources to help sustain, protect and enhance military training missions while meeting natural resources stewardship and environmental compliance requirements. Their efforts continue to improve natural habitat for more than 66 animal and plant species known to occur on the installation which are State and/or Federally Threatened, Endangered, or Species of Concern – including thousands of gopher tortoises.
Monitoring of the various species, including the red cockaded woodpecker, confirms their numbers are growing; critical to this growth is the management of the habitat. One key to the branch’s success has been the unique way they train all team members on both forestry and conservation practices.
“It makes us so much better managers,” said Darrel Odom, Natural Resources Management Branch forester. Everybody is on board, everybody understands what we’re doing, everybody understands the biology of whatever they’re working with, the trees, the birds, gopher tortoises – we know it and we understand it.”
Young set out to find the ring’s rightful place and with the help of his coworkers, the ring’s inscription, and a little “lunch time sleuthing” made contact, beginning the ring’s final journey to the living family members of its owner Col. (Retired) Thomas McCunniff.
From his obituary: Thomas G. McCunniff was born an Army brat in Denver, Colorado, on March 14, 1922. Imbued with a sense of "Duty, Honor, Country," Tom graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1945 like his father before him, and served as an infantry officer for the next 25 years in the service of his country.
McCunniff’s ring was returned to his children, Kelly Hicks, Dennis McCunniff, Donald McCunniff, and Kathleen Matthews Grice (Warren), today, March 14, 2022 on what would have been his 100th birthday during a ceremony hosted by the National Infantry Museum.
The occasion was actually the second time McCunniff’s original ring and his replacement ring were in the same place and time. The first came when McCunniff returned to Lee Field wearing the replacement, 31 years after the original was lost, to pin jump wings on his son Donald McCunniff upon his completion of jump number five.
“At that moment in time there are two West Point rings, a West Point graduate, and myself as a newly minted Airborne qualified 2nd Lt.,” said Donald.
Asked what he felt when contacted about the return of his father’s ring Donald said, “It was magical, you know to think about dad, we have such a legacy here at Fort Benning. It was a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with Fort Benning, with our military past.”