March 7, 2004
Bedford community gathers to send off soldiers
By Lt. Col. Chester
BEDFORD, Va. – Every journey, regardless of how short or how far and regardless of direction, begins with the first step. On March 4, 2004, the soldiers of 1 st Battalion, 116 th Infantry took their first step together as they marched from the National Guard Armory to the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va. to join in America's war on terrorism. These soldiers marched together just as other soldiers from this rural community nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains marched together almost 63 years ago in the name of peace and to preserve freedom.
The soldiers of today's 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry, Virginia Army National Guard, came together from communities across the Blue Ridge, Roanoke Valley, and the New River Valley of central Virginia. The towns of Roanoke, Pulaski, Radford, Christiansburg, Clifton Forge, and of course Bedford sent their sons to rally around the flag here in Bedford. Bedford, which is the home of Company A, 116th Infantry Regiment, the Virginia National Guard unit which lost 19 soldiers during the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, hosted the send off of the 1st Battalion soldiers. From here they travel to Ft. Bragg, N. C. where they will be integrated into 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry and begin preparing to join this country's war on terrorism.
Just as their predecessors did in 1941, the soldiers of the 116 th Infantry marched though the city of Bedford. But this time rather than marching from the armory to the Bedford County Courthouse, they marched through Bedford to the National D-Day Memorial were the unit's departure ceremony took place. But similarities between the two send offs remain. People lined the streets in 1941 as the “Bedford Boys,” as they came to be known, marched off to war. And people lined the streets today. Flag-waving children from the local elementary school lined the drive leading up to the D-Day Memorial chanting “USA, USA, USA!” The band from Jefferson Forest High School was on hand to provide patriotic and uplifting music as soldiers, families and friends milled about the memorial awaiting the arrival of Gov. Mark Warner and other dignitaries.
The weather was perfect for the event and possibly served as an omen of good things to come. Although the day began as overcast and gloomy the weather transformed into a warm, clear, beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains late winter morning. Off in the distance the Peaks of Otter and the skyline of Bedford were shrouded in the morning mist. But on the plaza of the memorial the sun was warm and bright; almost a balm to sooth the worry and anxiety about the unknown that looms in the future and must be overcome by these soldiers, their families, and their communities. Bedford knows full well the price of freedom: on June 6, 1944,19 soldiers from Bedford perished during the invasion of Normandy. That is the highest per capita loss suffered by any community and that is why the National D-Day Memorial is located in Bedford.
Walking around the plaza watching soldiers and their families, friends, and supporters mingle, exchange stories, trade smiles, share hugs, and shed tears one gets a sense of a great episode in history that took place almost 60 years ago and the contribution that citizen soldiers from these mountains and valleys made to that episode. Seeing the bronze statues of soldiers, which convincingly portray the emotion that must have been felt by the soldiers as they crossed the beaches of Normandy, freezes that event in time.
One gets the feeling that this place is guarded by the spirit of those who gave all on those beaches on June 6, 1944. The plaza is a solemn and serious place that reminds us of the sacrifice so many made so that so many more could live free. The emotion of that spirit permeates this place and generates a profound feeling for the mission these soldiers of a different generation are about to embark on. The mission these soldiers leave for today is no less daunting than the mission facing yesterday's “Bedford Boys.”
As Warner and his party entered the plaza the band played “This is My Country” followed by “America the Beautiful.” Musical reminders of why the crowd is here today and what these soldiers are about. As Warner made his way to the podium, he shook hands with those gathered along his way. Capt. Mike Gilligan ordered his soldiers into formation and then marched them to the center of the plaza. Family and friends gather around with their soldiers and drew near to hear words meant to inspire, encourage, comfort and give solace.
Cmd. Sgt. Maj. Robert Huffman challenged the soldiers of the 116th Infantry to rely upon their soldier skills and each other. He told them they are well trained now and will be even better prepared for their upcoming mission after completing their training at Ft. Bragg, N. C. The crowd enthusiastically cheered when Maj. Gen. Claude Williams said “It has been said that America's greatest generation fought World War II. But I believe America's greatest generation is standing before you in the ranks of the 116th Infantry.” Williams emphasized, his prayer is that all the soldiers standing on the plaza today return to this place in 18 months for the unit's welcome home celebration.
When Warner took the podium, he told of Virginians who since 1607 when Jamestown was founded have been citizens in peace and soldiers in war; of great people who have risen to great challenges. He spoke of Virginia's long history and tradition of patriotism and dedication to liberty; that Virginian's understand peace and freedom require sacrifice. Warner said it was fitting to acknowledge the contribution and sacrifice being made by these citizen soldiers today in this place dedicated to the sacrifices made by citizen soldiers of an earlier time. He said “These soldiers go forward today in the very spirit that motivated their brothers and comrade in arms to cross those beaches on June 6, 1944. Their mission is just as vital to our way of life as the mission was for the soldiers of the 116th Infantry Regiment 60 years ago.” He acknowledged the other Virginia patriots that have answered the call to duty in this same struggle the soldiers of the 116th Infantry are about to enter.
Warner said the soldiers standing in formation represented “the best of Virginia.” He praised the soldiers and said, “We owe these great patriots our gratitude and admiration for their sacrifice, commitment, and devotion.” And he also pointed out that just as the “Bedford Boys” did not cross the beaches of Normandy alone, neither did these soldiers leave Bedford alone. He noted the soldiers “have the unyielding and enduring support of their family, their community and the Commonwealth.” He concluded by saying “you go forward with our prayers.”
The ceremony honored these citizen soldiers, who in the tradition of the Minutemen, have laid down their plowshares and picked up their weapons to defend our nation and what it stands for and to pay tribute to the families that support these soldiers. It recognized the contribution of skill and talent of these soldiers and their families and praised their patriotism. Just as those at Jamestown, Yorktown and Bedford have done earlier, these citizen soldiers and their families are rising to overcome the fear of what the future may bring and the challenges that future will certainly offer up. And just as earlier generations have persevered to overcome hardship, so will this generation.