NEW ORLEANS – It’s hard to know who has the most captivating stories in a room full of veterans. It’s even harder when the generations span across a handful of military conflicts.
Remembering episodes from their times during the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and those spent in Iraq and Afghanistan, those generations of the 1st Infantry Division who served in those engagements reconvened for the 102nd Annual Society of the 1st Inf. Div. reunion in New Orleans on Aug. 10-13, 2023.
In the midst of their reminiscence, they remembered those they had lost along the way, and in doing so carried on the heritage of kinship.
“I remember watching movies as a kid and seeing the Big Red One,” said Sgt. First Class George Hernandez, an infantryman formerly assigned to the 1st Combined Arms Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Inf. Div. “I remember my dad reading books about the Big Red One, so to me, it felt like I was going to become a part of history.”
As the memories of the country’s WWII veterans become enshrined in the pages of America’s history, those remaining hold their memories close. Some remembered how it felt to clear tunnels in the jungles of Vietnam, while others recounted the atmosphere of Iraq at the moment Saddam Hussein was found.
“I have been fortunate,” said Maj. Gen. John V. Meyer III, commander of the 1st Inf. Div. and Fort Riley, in a speech made during the reunion banquet dinner. “Not only am I the division commander, but I had the opportunity to serve with the 26th Infantry in Iraq and had the opportunity to command the 28th Infantry in Afghanistan. So to be a ‘Blue Spader,’ a ‘Black Lion’ in combat, and then now be the division commander of all the great regiments in the unit’s history that are sitting here tonight, is quite an honor.”
Among many others who were in the room were Vietnam veterans Daniel Dunkel, J.P. Richard and Juan Santiago; Kenneth H. Bond, a Bronze Star recipient and Sarah Lee, a post 9/11 veteran who now runs a non-profit organization designed to help combat veterans.
Between these select few were stories told of Loc Ninh and Ramadi, Bung Tau and the Battle of Norfolk. Those who have never experienced such kinetic events would realize that any gaps between generations were merely trivial.
“The cool thing to me was how they’re never trying to one-up anybody,” said U.S. Army Sgt. Devin Duplantier, a forward observer assigned to 1st Battalion, 5th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Inf. Div. “They’re very interested in what’s going on in today’s Army no matter what it is. They don’t want you to downplay anything. They want to hear everything.”
Between these veterans flowed the shared blood of the U.S. Army’s storied history, a cavalcade of accounts highlighting the familial bond shared between combat veterans who, though separated by an array of combat theatres across several generations, experienced a hard-wrought understanding of peace and war known only to a few.
“Being in the military, especially if you went to war, you build a bond with your brothers and sisters,” said Phyllis Fitzgerald, chief warrant officer three (retired) and executive director of the Society of the 1st Inf. Div. “It’s good to come together, to rekindle or just catch up where you left off and share the stories of being together in the military.”
Camaraderie, from the gathering of hundreds of Big Red One veterans, was further strengthened over food, drink and much discussion. The history of the unit unfolded with each memory shared.
“Going to the reunion opened up to me how important it is to not just continue service but to continue passing on the legacy of the 1st Inf. Div.,” said Duplantier. “You realize there are so many comparisons to the past and how things are done the same way. You want to continue that. You don’t want to be the person to lose that tradition. You don’t want to be the one person letting the older generations down.”
As these veterans enjoyed the city and each other’s company, the bonds that tethered them to the unit and one another continued to grow. The long history of America’s First Division evolved with each story re-told, each bit of laughter and each tear shed.
According to Fitzgerald, over thirty veterans of the unit and the SFID passed away in the last year.
“It was a great experience and great opportunity,” said Duplantier. “I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to go. It was nice to be able to talk to people who served. My perspective on serving and being in the 1st Inf. Div. completely changed after it. I have a lot more respect, I already had a lot of respect, but now I have a stronger sense of how this is my team, this is my unit.”
Their legacies will continue to exist within those who attend future reunions.
“I think it’s important that we come back to Kansas and we keep that going,” said Duplantier. “I would definitely recommend if there are any future opportunities for people to go, send as many people as we can and send different people so that everybody can get that same experience and understand what I got to see. I want other people to see that.”