AAFD - LTG Paul Cerjan wb.jpgFort Drum’s main access control point, Lt. Gen. Paul G. Cerjan Gate, is named after the former 10th Mountain Division (LI) assistant commander for personnel and logistics, who was instrumental in overseeing the largescale installation construction that began in the late 1980s. With his extensive engineering background, Cerjan was selected to handle the day-to-day management of the expansion project that brought the division to the North Country. (Graphic by Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs)

Post community recalls assistant commander
who built 10th Mountain Division’s new home

Mike Strasser

Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs

FORT DRUM, N.Y. (July 13, 2023) – Every day, thousands of people drive through Fort Drum’s main gate – formally known as the Lt. Gen. Paul G. Cerjan Gate.

But upon entering the cantonment, how many dwell on the gate’s namesake and wonder how he fits into Fort Drum history? After all, it was Cerjan who took on gargantuan responsibilities during the expansion more than four decades ago, turning a small training center into a modern power projection platform.  

Cerjan was born July 17, 1938, to George and Elizabeth Cerjan, in Rome, New York. He attended Rome Free Academy, lettered in three sports, and served as an altar boy and Eagle Scout. Cerjan was described as an avid reader of history.

In 1960, he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he played water polo and 150-pound (weight class) football. Later in his career, Cerjan would teach in the Department of Earth, Space and Graphic Sciences at his alma mater and serve as offensive coordinator for the same football team he played on.

After completing the Infantry Officer Basic Course at Fort Benning (now Fort Moore), Georgia, Cerjan served in Germany for the next four years. Assigned to the 4th Armored Division, the young company commander met his wife, Patricia. Together, they would raise three sons.

Returning to the states, Cerjan joined the 11th Air Assault Division, which was activated in 1963, at Fort Benning.

Cerjan rebranched into the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and served two combat tours in Vietnam between 1965 and 1969. As a company commander in the 8th Engineer Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division, one of their first undertakings was the construction of a signal complex on top of Hon Cong Mountain. This would be a crucial combat communications system for the 1st Cavalry Division's command and control operations. During his second deployment, Cerjan served as a deputy battalion commander in the 101st Airborne Division. 

Between deployments, he studied construction management at Oklahoma State University and earned a master’s degree in civil engineering in 1969. Cerjan registered as a professional engineer in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

He returned to Germany in 1976, where he served as battalion commander and G3 (plans and operations) chief with the 3rd Infantry Division. During his 34-year military career, Cerjan served in seven divisions. Among his key assignments were deputy commander in chief, U.S. Army Europe and 7th Army; Army War College commandant, and president of the National Defense University at Fort McNair, Washington.

Building Fort Drum

Cerjan was commanding the 7th Engineer Brigade, VII Corps, U.S. Army Europe, in Germany, when American newspapers were reporting what the Army was planning in northern New York. A New York Times article, dated Sept. 12, 1984, read:

The Army announced today (Sept. 11) that it would station a light infantry division at Fort Drum, here in one of the most economically distressed sections of northern New York.

The new division, the first created by the Army since 1975 and the first to be stationed in the Northeast since World War II, will bring 7,500 Soldiers and 9,700 dependents to Fort Drum, according to Army officials.

In a packed American Legion Hall here, six miles from Fort Drum, Representative David O’B. Martin told cheering local officials: “This is just the beginning. There are a lot of challenges ahead.”

Local officials said the coming of the division would bring dramatic economic and social changes to a region with high unemployment and a declining industry.

Maj. Gen. William Carpenter was named as the 10th Mountain Division (LI) commander, with Col. Michael Plummer as his chief of staff. In March 1985, Carpenter hand-picked Cerjan to handle the day-to-day management of the expansion project and to serve as assistant division commander for personnel and logistics.

Making Fort Drum home to a new light infantry division would require the largest military construction project in the U.S. since World War II. With a budget close to $1.2 billion, everything would be built from the ground up – from a sewage treatment plant, roadways, family housing and barracks to a movie theater, police and fire stations, and child care centers.

Patricia Cerjan, wife of the late Paul Cerjan, said he whole-heartedly embraced this opportunity.

“My husband would say, ‘Who gets an opportunity to build a city in this day and age?’” she said. “To think that someone who had always loved architecture, and with his military background, the historical ramifications of building a new Army installation were exhilarating. We were so excited.”

With his graduate-level engineering education and extensive architectural knowledge, Cerjan knew how to communicate with design teams and construction crews. In his own words, Cerjan “approached engineering with an infantryman’s perspective.”

The synergy among leadership was evident from the start. Carpenter, Plummer and Cerjan were all West Point classmates, and the two general officers had worked together on previous assignments.

“He was in charge of the architects,” Patricia Cerjan said. “Bill Carpenter said, ‘Paul, this is yours. Run with it. The division is over here, we’ll do that. You need to get this installation built.’”

It was also fortuitous that Cerjan shared a similar combat engineering background with Brig. Gen. Daniel Schroeder, the Corps of Engineer program manager for light infantry division facilities development.

Cerjan hosted weekly conference calls with the division command team, Army Engineer Corps representatives and other personnel and logistics officers, on the design of the new installation. He also routinely met with all the engineers involved – a number that would grow to roughly 100 people.

Cerjan also traveled to other military installations and facilities across the country to inspect their infrastructure, and he would inquire about how the military interacted with the civilian community.

His top priority was ensuring that Fort Drum had everything the division would need, and Cerjan reviewed and approved designs at every stage. When told that two swimming pools on one Army installation was an unreasonable request, Cerjan fought to get the second pool approved.

He argued for multiple basketball courts in the sports complex, so that the gymnasium could accommodate division assemblies. He also wanted an elevated track so Soldiers could run indoors during inclement weather.

To satisfy a division that could rapidly deploy, Cerjan ensured that the barracks were configured so that every company could board trucks from the back of the buildings without going across traffic. Designs accounted for climate conditions by laying out roads that took advantage of the prevailing winds, so that snow would blow off the roads and reduce drift.

Additional service bays for technical equipment were included in designs to allow for more Soldiers to do their work inside during extreme winter weather conditions. Dining facilities had additional queuing space so Soldiers would not have to line up outside.

According to one U.S. Army Forces Command engineer involved with the project, “Cerjan absolutely, room by room, brick by brick, design by design, was the quality control on what each design would ultimately look like.”

Architecture and engineering firms had to submit detailed renderings of buildings to Cerjan, and he requested they include all the “uglies” in it – such as air conditioning units and dryer vents. Cerjan valued appearance as well as function. If something in the schematic didn’t look right to him, he had the designer fix it.

Carpenter insisted that Soldiers and their families would not be moved to Fort Drum until housing was available. The Army used a new provision of the Military Construction Act of 1984 called Section 801 to ensure new housing was available in the tri-county area.

Cerjan assembled a group of noncommissioned officers to examine any lodging being offered for lease in the local communities and to assess its quality. He also reviewed the weekly report of how many families had arrived, where they were billeted, and how many days they had been in temporary or transit lodging.

Additionally, the division command team had the responsibility to develop and maintain good working relationships with community partners. Carpenter and Cerjan supported the organization of a Fort Drum chapter of Association of the U.S. Army (AUSA) in Watertown.

Being a native New Yorker and devoted family man, Cerjan was quite capable of fostering the civil-military relations needed in the North Country amid drastic economic and social change.

“Getting the civilian community involved was so important, and they purposefully worked with the city of Watertown,” Patricia Cerjan said. “That involvement, that caring, was so key to setting the atmosphere where the civilian leadership knew the military leadership.”

Construction on the old cantonment (known today as South Post) began in early 1986 with renovations of the World War II buildings. By May, roadwork began that would connect the old post to the new, with power lines, sewer pump station and utilities also underway.

While archaeological and environmental issues were handled by Fort Drum Environmental personnel and state officials, Cerjan also weighed in. After he observed how contractors were arbitrarily cutting down trees, he made it known that every tree on post with a diameter of more than four inches was under his jurisdiction.

To further his point, Cerjan placed metal tags on some of the trees and held division leaders responsible for the security of them. His intervention is said to have preserved the environmental beauty of Fort Drum, but from his academic background he knew it had a more practical purpose. The swaths of mature trees acted as snow fences and reduced snow drifts against buildings and on roads.

Early in 1987, Cerjan established a configuration management plan, which included the installation working group to resolve construction management problems at the local level. The biweekly IWG meeting reviewed construction progress and approved all changes that would affect the timeline.

The number of daily, weekly, and monthly meetings Cerjan attended – not to mention the informal office meetings – was assurance that the 10th Mountain Division would be involved in every step of the decision-making process even after he departed Fort Drum.

In June 1987, Cerjan returned overseas to serve as the executive to the Supreme Allied Commander-Europe (SACEUR), in Belgium.

A few months before he left – and a year before Carpenter would relinquish command – Cerjan attended the groundbreaking ceremony on May 29, 1987, to commemorate the next phase of the military construction project.

Over the course of months and years, there would be more personnel changes from the original team of commanders, engineers, and project managers. But the foundation laid down by leaders like Cerjan, Carpenter and Plummer enabled others to seamlessly continue the mission of building Fort Drum.

The new aviation facilities at Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield were completed ahead of schedule, making up the final piece of Fort Drum’s expansion project. Cerjan returned for the airfield dedication on May 29, 1992.

After more than 33 years of service, he retired with the rank of lieutenant general on July 31, 1994. And yet Fort Drum was never far from his thoughts.

“Well, he fell in love with salmon fishing,” Patricia Cerjan said. “He had himself a little boat called ‘Climb to Glory 1.’ Whenever we were in the states and could get back here, he would go out with his old fishing buddies. He always wanted to keep coming back to see Fort Drum. I mean, this was his baby he helped create, and he wanted to see it to fruition. I was a school teacher, so I know that when teaching a child, you are always curious to see how they grow up to be adults.”

Cerjan said her husband had a penchant for being where history was made.

“He was in Berlin when they started building the wall,” she said. “He was in the Pentagon on 9/11 when it was attacked, and he was about one corridor over from the impact area. Sometimes we wind up in places where historical events happen, and I believe Fort Drum was one of those times. I think it was divine providence that brought that group of people together here to accomplish something wonderful.”

Cerjan died on April 17, 2011, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

On July 3, 2012, Interstate 781 – a direct route from Interstate 81 to Fort Drum’s main gate – was designated as the Paul Cerjan Memorial Highway. Patricia Cerjan, her three children and grandchildren, attended the dedication ceremony in December at Fort Drum.

Lt. Gen. Walter E. Piatt, former 10th Mountain Division (LI) commander, served as deputy commander at the time, and he spoke about Cerjan at the event.

“Gen. Cerjan’s strategic vision and skills in engineering did more than build a base on time and under budget,” he said. “He connected the base to the community by designing the needed infrastructure, businesses, housing, and schooling to be provided by the people of the North Country. He did more than build an installation. He built a home.”

Fort Drum’s main gate – formerly known as North Gate – also was named in his honor in 2014. That summer, a display case was established at the Heritage Center recognizing Cerjan and his contributions to Fort Drum. Among the collection is one of Cerjan’s uniforms, a West Point mug and an inspirational quote he kept on his desk to motivate him when hard decisions had to be made. It reads: “Footprints in history aren’t made sitting down.”

Patricia Cerjan herself is part of Fort Drum history. Originally from Oklahoma, her father served with the 45th Infantry Division while it was training at Pine Camp (now Fort Drum).

As a little girl, she recalled how a caravan of military spouses would drive from Oklahoma to New York, and then find rooms to rent in Carthage so they could be close to their husbands.

“I was a little girl from Oklahoma seeing snow piled higher than myself,” she said. “And I remember the Army chaplain would have all the families come on post every Sunday so they could be together.”

“Then so many years later, to move back to an area I had seen at five years of age – and to see the transformation – was wonderful,” she continued. “When they were finally at the point of naming roads, Paul told them, ‘You left out the 45th Infantry Division.” They said that unit didn’t serve here, and Paul said, ‘Well, my wife’s father was here with the 45th and she was here when this was Pine Camp.’ Roads have to go through a commission for approval, but that little road wasn’t named yet and so Paul asked if it could be named the 45th Infantry Division. That little road is very significant to me.”

In 2022, Patricia Cerjan was named “Woman of the Mountain” during an induction ceremony on post, and she attended the grand opening of the 10th Mountain Division and Fort Drum Museum at its new location. Artifacts from her husband’s time at Fort Drum are displayed in one of the museum’s exhibits highlighting the Fort Drum expansion. Among them is a disc of the first tree cut in 1985 and the construction helmet he wore during site visits.

Additionally, a conference room at the National Defense University was dedicated to Cerjan on Jan. 8, 2015. Cerjan, a lieutenant general at the time, served there as the seventh president from 1992 to 1994. During his tenure, he led the first U.S. military delegation to China following the Tiananmen Square protest in 1989.

(Editor’s Note: In addition to an interview with Patricia Cerjan, the article included source material from Donita Moorhus’s paper “The U.S. Army and the Community at Fort Drum,” for the Society for Military Society and “The Construction of Fort Drum: A Model Installation.”)