WATERTOWN, N.Y. -- Business professionals, civic leaders and elected officials joined the U.S. Army's second-highest- ranking Soldier on Friday to publicly renew their commitment to 10th Mountain Division (LI) Soldiers and their Families.

The Army Community Covenant renewal signing ceremony, which organizers believed to be the first of its kind Armywide, celebrated Fort Drum's continuing relationship with the tri-county area four years after the original covenant was signed here.

"This is indeed a model community," said Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, vice chief of staff of the Army, who noted he and his wife, Charlene, have many fond memories of the area. "It is a place where Soldiers want to serve and where our Army Families want to raise their children."

Austin said, in reality, strong community partnerships already existed at Fort Drum long before the community covenant program became popular.

Former Secretary of the Army Pete Geren launched the Army Community Covenant in 2008 as a way of expanding the Army Family Covenant program. Through a covenant signing, local community members are encouraged to help the Army improve the quality of life for Soldiers and Families.

Since then, hundreds of garrisons Armywide have each signed a community covenant with off-post neighbors.

Watertown was the second official location to sign a community covenant in 2008, a month after Columbus, Ga., signed one with Fort Benning.

"This re-signing of the community covenant is really just an outward demonstration of the strong bonds that have existed between our communities for a long time," said Austin, who served as
commander of Fort Drum and 10th Mountain Division (LI) from 2003 to 2005.

"We have enjoyed a wonderful partnership, and we have grown and prospered together," he said. "I have no doubt that we will continue to do so in the months and years ahead."

Politicians from the local, state and federal levels who represent various regions of northern New York attended the ceremony, which turned the center court area of the Salmon Run Mall into a patriotic spectacle of flags, bunting and brigade history displays.

"We all know that the 10th Mountain Division has done more than its duty over the last 10 years -- more than its duty," said U.S. Congressman Bill Owens, who represents New York's 23rd District, before signing the covenant. "And for that, we are all grateful."

On behalf of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the state's lieutenant governor thanked Fort Drum Soldiers and Families for their outstanding service to the state and country.

"I cannot even begin to understand what you go through in terms of (your) sacrifices ... to protect our freedoms (and) to protect this country," said Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy. "It is an awesome, awesome responsibility to have.

"We are so proud in New York state to have Fort Drum and the 10th Mountain Division right here in our midst," Duffy added. "We can't say thank you enough for what you do."

Maj. Gen. Mark A. Milley, Fort Drum and 10th Mountain Division (LI) commander, said although he and others appreciate the community's gratitude, Soldiers choose to fight for their country fully aware of the hazards of their profession.

"We know how to fight," Milley said. "And we are really good at it. OFBut for us to fight and fight well, we must know that our Families are taken care of. We will not fight well if we think we are having problems on the home front.

"And that's where you come in," the general continued. "And we cannot thank you enough. Our children go to your schools. Our families shop in this mall. Our sick, our wounded, our ill are treated at Samaritan (Medical Center) and Carthage (Area Hospital). Our babies are born in your hospitals. We drink your water. We use your electricity.

"This is the most patriotic community in the United States, and I have been to an awful lot of them," Milley added. "This is No. 1."

The covenant renewal signing ceremony was sponsored by the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization, the Northern New York / Fort Drum Chapter of the Association of the U.S. Army, Operation Yellow Ribbon and the Fort Drum Chapter of the National Association of the 10th Mountain Division.

Joining politicians, the command group and other dignitaries on the dais during the ceremony was the Family of Sgt. 1st Class Kevin G. Rast, a member of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 7th Engineer Battalion.

Rast, his wife Dawn N. Desmond-Rast, son Jeryd, and daughter Makayla, were named Family of the Year last month by the Northern New York-Fort Drum Chapter of the Association of the United States Army. Judith L. Gentner, former Fort Drum deputy to the garrison commander, was named the local AUSA chapter's Department of the Army Civilian of the Year. She chaired the committee tasked with overseeing the covenant re-signing ceremony Friday at the mall.

Gentner and the Rast Family also were recognized Friday night at the Army Birthday Ball held on post.

In addition to providing Soldiers and their loved ones with the assurance that the larger community supports them, the ceremony also spotlighted local and state leaders who proclaimed their solidarity with Soldiers, Family Members and the communities that support them.

"Today's ceremony is just one example of what makes the North Country unique and a model for all others to follow," said Elizabeth Fipps, FDRLO chairwoman. "The signing is purely symbolic, but (it) carries a very deep moral commitment to support service members and their Families."

Fipps also pointed out that the community's commitment to Fort Drum Soldiers and Family Members is recognized beyond the area, since Watertown is currently among six small town finalists in the "Most Patriotic" category of the Rand-McNally / USA Today Best of the Road competition.

The Best of the Road event also names American small towns rated "Most Beautiful," "Friendliest," "Most Fun" and "Best for Food."

After learning that Best of the Road judges would be in town Friday, Duffy told the crowd ahead of the weekend that he has no doubt about which American town would be voted most patriotic.
"You have shown that time and time again," Duffy said. "It is extraordinary. It is a family. These Soldiers and Families are a part of the family of Watertown and Jefferson County. It is a beautiful thing to see.

"It is not just something put on publicly," he added. "It is something you hear and see and feel privately. It is there every single day. Anyone who comes here, it doesn't take long to experience that."

After top officials signed the covenant renewal, the ceremony concluded with the signing of God Bless America.