By Kari Hawkins, USAG RedstoneNovember 18, 2010
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- It was inevitable.
Ever since 2005, when that year's round of the Base Realignment and Closure Act was announced as being a major growth vehicle for Redstone Arsenal's position as a leading aviation and missile center, Arsenal and community leaders have been bracing themselves for the downside of the realignment action -- the loss of hundreds of Soldiers assigned to Redstone for training.
At this year's annual Veterans Day Dinner, in front of a crowd of some 1,000 local business, community and military leaders at the Von Braun Center's North Hall, the community said their official farewell to the "young Soldier" presence on Redstone.
The 59th Ordnance Brigade and its Soldiers will be leaving Redstone in phases during the next year as its headquarters and training facilities -- along with the 800 Soldiers who are in training at any given time - are moved to Fort Lee, Va. This year's Veterans Day Parade was the last time the brigade's schoolhouse -- the Ordnance Munitions and Electronics Maintenance School -- and its training battalion -- the 832nd Ordnance Battalion -- were represented on the streets of Huntsville.
"This is our last year and the last time we will be able to see the tremendous support of the community," Col. Lee Merritt, commander of the 59th, said.
The Veterans Day Dinner on Nov. 10 honored several local military heroes. But the most poignant event of the night was the presentation of a proclamation that named Nov. 10, 2010, as "59th Ordnance Brigade Day" in Madison County. That proclamation was presented to the 59th's commander Col. Lee Merritt and Command Sgt. Maj. Angel Clark-Davis, and a select group of Soldiers of the 59th.
"The 59th Ordnance Brigade and its related organizations have been a vital part of this community for almost 60 years," presenter Joe Fitzgerald said. "Standing here on stage with us are Soldiers from your brigade. They are here to represent the thousands and thousands of Soldiers that have served at Redstone Arsenal and been a vital part of our community. Now we must say farewell."
The proclamation, signed by Huntsville mayor Tommy Battle, Madison mayor Paul Finley and Madison County Commission chairman Mike Gillespie, recognized the 59th's presence at the Arsenal since 1952, and its Soldiers' contributions to the community through such events as the Special Olympics, Christmas Charities and the Veterans Day Parade.
"It was a great event for us," Merritt said of the dinner. "It was nice that the community wanted to send us off with a little bit of flare. Any time the community recognizes the impact the school has had it's a good thing."
Merritt said the 59th and its Soldiers have always enjoyed being part of the community's Veterans Day activities, and particularly the parade.
"It's good for the community to get the opportunity to see these Soldiers," he said. "But it's also been good for our Soldiers to participate in the parade because it validates to them that they are part of something bigger than themselves. These activities let them see the sacrifices of other folks who have done this before them and who know a little bit of what they're going through. They can see for themselves the tremendous sacrifices that have been made by Soldiers who have gone on before them."
Merritt said Huntsville is unique in its support of Soldiers. He mentioned other community activities, such as the barbecue dinner the Huntsville mayor provided to Soldiers during Armed Forces Week, and activities like attending a Huntsville Havoc hockey game and Huntsville Stars baseball game provided by the Redstone-Huntsville Chapter of the Association of the U.S. Army.
"People come up to you at the airport here and thank you," Merritt said. "There's a lot of support here that you don't see in other communities. Huntsville is similar to smaller communities in its support, except that this is a larger community. You can really feel this community truly loves its Soldiers and military from the heart."
Besides the "young Soldiers" - the privates in training - the Arsenal will also be losing non-commissioned officers and warrant officers who provide that training.
The message the community sends with these Soldiers is one that will stay with them long after they have completed their march in the Veterans Day Parade, Merritt said.
"This is about the Army values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. That message is brought home in something as small as marching in a parade and seeing all the people who support what you are doing," the colonel said.
Many local veterans, such as local Association of the U.S. Army chapter president Steve Taylor, actually have ties to the 59th, either by attending the schoolhouse as a young Soldier or being a schoolhouse trainer. Taylor's last assignment before retirement was commander of the 59th.
"I feel sorry that they're leaving," Taylor said. "But I obviously understand the rationale behind them leaving as the Army moves to consolidate training."
Besides recognition of the 59th, the Veterans Day Dinner was also an occasion to recognize military heroes throughout the nation, and especially those who have made Huntsville and Madison County their home.
"This is a special night," said the dinner's host, retired Brig. Gen. Bob Drolet, who serves as AUSA's state president.
"This is a night to say 'thank you' to the brave men and women of our armed forces who have, and are, protecting our democracy and freedom. When others turned away, it was our veterans who were willing to stand up and be counted. God bless the brave and wonderful men and women of our United States armed forces who are serving around the world."
As part of the dinner, the North Alabama Veterans and Fraternal Organization's Coalition announced their Veteran of the Year - retired Marine Joe Bongiovanni -- and Lifetime Achievement winner - retired Army Col. Jim Henderson.
"These candidates exemplified extraordinary achievement in both their military careers and their dedication to the needs of our veterans and citizens of our community," coalition president John Perry said. "We hold these candidates to the highest standards of integrity, loyalty, respect and selfless service and, to include the characteristics from the theme of this year's parade: Courage, Sacrifice and Duty."
Bongiovanni joined the Marine Corps in 1967 and served a tour of duty as a combat infantryman at the height of the Vietnam War. He participated in the most bitterly fought Battle of the Tet Offensive of 1968. A local businessman, he serves as the chairman of Semper Fi Community Task Force of North Alabama, and is the vice president of Semper Fi Riders. He is a member of the Marine Corps League, Third Marine Division Association, VFW and American Legion, and is a supporter of the Marine Corps Toys for Tots program.
Henderson was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army in 1964, with assignments that took him to Germany, Vietnam, Korea, Redstone Arsenal and Pueblo Army Depot, Pueblo, Colo. He is an ordained Episcopalian minister. He and his wife have provided charitable services for nearly 20 years through their all-volunteer Emmanuel Ministries, giving over 1 million pounds of groceries to the less fortunate and the elderly. He sponsored a project for Limestone Correctional Facility inmates to repair nearly 1,000 children's bicycles, which he and his wife distributed to children in need at Christmas. He and his wife also founded and operated the Rose of Sharon Home for pregnant and troubled girls for over two years, and conducted regular church services for inmates at Limestone Correctional Facility.
The dinner event included the 35th annual induction ceremony for the Madison County Military Heritage Commission Hall of Heroes and an induction ceremony for new members of the local chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. Both groups have displays at the Madison County Courthouse.
"The real heroes of these events are the veterans. The focus is on the veterans," AUSA's Taylor said. "I'm so proud we are able to recognize them. My favorite heroes are the common Soldiers that at a particular time in their service they are called on to do something exceptional and they answer that call."