FORT BRAGG, N.C. (Aug. 20, 2009) -- The 69th National Airborne Day was celebrated by more than 2,000 guests at the Airborne and Special Operations Museum in downtown Fayetteville, N.C., Saturday.
National Airborne Day traces its beginnings back to 1940 when 48 Soldiers answered the call and became the Army's first parachute test platoon. On Aug. 16, 1940, these volunteer Soldiers performed the first official Army parachute jump and became America's first paratroopers.
"We remember our brave and beloved servicemembers today who are deployed around the globe in service to our nation," said retired Col. Jim Huggins, the museum director. "This is a day of celebration and also one of remembrance."
The most important message the museum wants to get out is that the military is a thinking game, said Huggins a 31-year airborne veteran with 230 parachute jumps.
"It's not a technology show, it's a show of how people have seen a challenge and developed innovative ways to face that challenge and to defeat the challenge. It's why we have parachutes because people have said I have to get from here to there and win," he said. "These war fighters parachute in at night and when you wake up, the problem has been solved."
When World War II, Korean and Vietnam War veterans come to the museum, they want to know what today's paratroopers are doing, according to Huggins.
"Today's Soldier is a young man or woman who two or three years ago, was just walking through the halls of high school and now they're information age, deployable fighting machines. They've got communication, night vision, weapons, sustainment, all right on their bodies, in a pocket or a pack, and it's phenomenal, it is just unbelievable, and the World War II guys see that and they appreciate it," said Huggins.
One thing the airborne is doing right now is fielding the T-11 parachute, Huggins said. "You are going to see the T-10 parachute go away," he said. "It's too small."
During the ceremony, fallen paratroopers were honored with the laying of two symbolic black roses on monuments flanking the museum's entrance, followed by a moment of silence.
"The black rose recognizes and symbolizes the grief and sorrow we all feel for our fallen heroes," said Maj. Gen. Dan B. Allyn, acting commanding general of the XVIII Airborne Corps and the host of the National Airborne Day celebration. "The American heroes that have served our airborne over the years are worthy of pause and worthy of commemoration, and that's what we do here today."
Before attending the event, Allyn said goodbye to 500 paratroopers heading out the door to Iraq and Afghanistan.
"When I think about what we really celebrate here today, we celebrate the spirit of volunteers who answer the call that included dangers they could not fully comprehend," said Allyn. "Just one year ago, the XVIII Airborne Corps headquarters was leading a coalition effort in Iraq and on this day last year, we paused to recognize the awe-inspiring legacy that we as paratroopers are obligated to perpetuate."
Paratroopers continue to make a positive difference in the lives of people and nations all over the world, Allyn said.
"Yes, even in a combat zone, we pause to pay homage to the combat paratrooper," said Allyn. "As we all recognize, it was in combat that the daring spirit of the airborne Soldier was born."
Allyn, while commanding the 1st Ranger Battalion, led 1,000 paratroopers on a combat jump into Panama in 1989. He has between 185 and 190 parachute jumps.
Allyn said today's paratroopers are unique because they are three-time volunteers.
"Everyone today who serves in our military is a volunteer, but paratroopers volunteer to jump out of airplanes and are volunteering to serve in combat on a recurring basis," he said.
The guest speaker was retired Gen. Dan K. McNeill, who Allyn said was a true hero and a great American. McNeill, nicknamed the "Bomber," served eight tours and spent more than 24 out of his 40 years of service at Fort Bragg. His final command was leading Soldiers in Afghanistan. He served as the commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
"This is a country that was born of revolution. It was a fight against tyranny then and we find ourselves fighting against tyranny and extremism today," McNeill said. "In the strategy of this country, there is still a dimension that requires people in the dark of night to go into foreign hostile places and the only way they may be able to do it is by parachute."
"The men and woman of America's airborne will continue to come forward of their own volition and indeed, to go forward without hesitation as long as they have the unfailing support of the American people," McNeill said. "So for each of us here today, and as part of this celebration, let's renew our resolve to support our airborne. They're a national treasure."
McNeill finished airborne school in January 1969. He retired earlier this year with 40 years of service and close to 300 jumps.
The 82nd Airborne Division's All American chorus sang the national anthem during the opening ceremony. The chorus performed and entertained throughout the day. All 23 chorus performers are airborne qualified.
"It is an honor that they want us down here for this special occasion. It is pretty near and dear to old paratroopers' hearts that they get to celebrate what they used to do back in those days," said Sgt. Devin K. Odom, chorus director, Headquarters Company, 82nd Airborne Division. "For them to come out and look at the museum and hear some of the songs sung today, wow, it's a good feeling to actually take them back down memory lane."
The day's celebration included re-enactors dressed in authentic airborne uniforms from World War II through the present, who displayed weapons and equipment from bygone eras. The museum has about 100 volunteers, mostly airborne veterans. Additionally, various pieces of military equipment from Fort Bragg units were available for the public to see, climb in or interact with.
Joseph Bazan, 73, traveled all the way from Corpus Christi, Texas, to be with his son, Joe Bazan, 51, to attend the day's events. Both are proud paratroopers who served in the same unit, in the same company.
"I followed in my dad's footsteps because he served in the 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division; so did my uncle, his brother," Joe Bazan said. "When I decided to go in, I served in the same unit, 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment. We actually served in the same company, Company A, when I joined the Army."
This was the elder Bazan's first trip to the museum. In the latest special exhibit at the museum, "The Sky Soldiers," 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team has on display a large wall photograph of Bazan among a group of paratroopers assisting a casualty into a MEDEVAC helicopter during the Vietnam War. He had no idea his photograph was in the museum.
"When I first saw my picture in the museum, it was heart-throbbing because of the number of people I got to serve with in the 173rd ABCT," Joseph said.
Joseph Bazan served in the Army for 23 years, had 147 jumps, and retired as a first sergeant. His son Joe served in the Army for 21 years, had 82 recorded jumps, and retired a sergeant first class.
"It's a tradition. I have my daughter who's in the service right now with the XVIII Airborne Corps. I have two son-in-laws who are both airborne," Joe said. "It's something that gets in your blood and when you join an elite unit and you come here and see how far it has gone since day one and you are part of that, it has such a great meaning. You can never get rid of it; a lot of people do not understand it."
"Once you pin those wings on your chest, you become part of a brotherhood and you will never forget it for the rest of your life. It's just something I picked up from dad and watching him become a paratrooper and what he went through," Joe said.
"It's something a lot of people don't understand, when you see another paratrooper, you greet him with an, 'airborne', and he answers, 'all the way,'" the elder Bazan said. "No one else, none of the other services, none of the regular Army, Marines, no one has that tradition that the airborne has, and that's something that's recognizable anywhere you go. Anywhere you meet up with another paratrooper, you signal him by saying, 'airborne.'"