Reunion honors heritage families

By Porsha AuzenneNovember 8, 2023

Fort Johnson 16th Annual Fall Heritage Reunion
1 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Naomi Monk Roy views one of the booths set up at the event. (Photo Credit: Porsha Auzenne) VIEW ORIGINAL
Fort Johnson 16th Annual Fall Heritage Reunion
2 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Fort Johnson leadership and members of the heritage family association pose for a group photo at the reunion Oct. 28. (Photo Credit: Porsha Auzenne) VIEW ORIGINAL
Fort Johnson 16th Annual Fall Heritage Reunion
3 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Col. CJ Lopez, Fort Johnson garrison commander, addresses heritage family members at Fort Johnson's Main Post Chapel Oct. 28. (Photo Credit: Porsha Auzenne) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT JOHNSON, La. — In the wake of World War II, as the United States prepared to join the Allied powers in the battle against the Axis powers, U.S. Army leaders knew they had to develop sharp tactics in order to fight against a solid enemy force. In order to replicate the environment Soldiers would be deploying to, leadership fixed their sites on central Louisiana.

With its hilly forested terrain and remote location, central Louisiana was the perfect place to set up a training facility. Eighty years later this land would become known as the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Johnson and is known for its success in aiding mission readiness.

However, this could not have happened without the selfless sacrifices of the area’s heritage families. To secure the land needed for the maneuvers, the families who occupied the area were offered fair market value for their land as the U.S. government exercised its right to eminent domain.

As the Army prepared to assemble what was then known as Camp Polk, families who lived and worked on this land gave up their homes, possessions and heirlooms for the good of the nation. More than 300 families were affected by this drastic change.

In honor of their charitable deeds, Fort Johnson takes time each year to recognize them at the Annual Fall Heritage Reunion. First held in 2007, this event provided a weekend without military training for families to have a reunion on the installation, where they were able to visit loved ones at cemeteries, visit old homesteads and tour the landscape.

This year, heritage families, Fort Johnson leadership and the community gathered at the Main Post Chapel Oct. 28 to observe the 16th reunion. Billy Nash, president of the organization of heritage families associated with Fort Johnson, opened the ceremony.

“It’s good to be on the grounds of Fort Johnson again today,” Nash said. “Back in June, during the Fort Johnson redesignation ceremony, one of the family members of the late Sgt. Henry Johnson came up to me and asked if I could tell her the story of our heritage families and the land they gave up. When I got through with my story, she was almost in tears. The lives of our forefathers were forever changed 82 years ago. Everything familiar became unfamiliar … all that was significant to the families in the area during that time became insignificant.”

Nash broke down in tears as he continued his speech.

“However, Fort Johnson has done so much for our local communities. From helping our high schools to setting up colleges for the education of our future doctors and engineers, we are thankful for this installation and to our families for all they gave so that Fort Johnson exists today.”

Rep. Chuck Owen, Louisiana House District 30, was also in attendance for the reunion. Owen talked about his family and their connections with the Fort Johnson area.

“I’m a native of Leesville. My father’s family were Turners and my mother was a Leach, two of the local heritage families. My father was a superintendent and my grandfather was a sheriff decades back. My family didn’t have anything to give, as we were poor, but we were still around,” Owen said. “I sincerely want to thank the heritage association for keeping this event together, and I will make it my task to bring my daughters next year. This country has held together for as long as it has because, as a rule, it has done right by its people. Our families sacrificed an enormous amount of their blood, hearts and souls when they lost their land. In return, our nation kept faith by keeping us free.”

Col. CJ Lopez, Fort Johnson garrison commander, opened his speech by giving recognition to the heritage families.

“The community gathers each year at this time to recognize the sacrifices made by heritage families during the creation of Camp Polk. Though our home is now Fort Johnson, it was born from the greatness of those sacrifices,” Lopez said. “I want our heritage families to feel welcomed here and to know their sacrifice and connection to Fort Johnson is honored and valued by all of us in the U.S. Army. Millions of Soldiers have been forged into better leaders because of our training area. I want to personally thank the heritage families for their sacrifices.”

After the opening ceremony concluded, attendees enjoyed music, information booths, a children’s booth, outdoor games and lunch provided by The Forge Bar & Grill. Upon completion of the event, interested families were able to visit surrounding cemeteries and homesteads to pay tributes to their loved ones.

Heritage family member Wilma Filipi, formerly a Craft, conveyed what Fort Johnson holding the heritage family reunion means to her.

“It’s a wonderful get-together where we are able to reminisce the past,” Filipi said.

While most of the original heritage family members have passed away or were unable to attend, their spirit lives on through the next generation — one that can be proud of their rich familial history and the undying sacrifices they made.