Hundreds of spectators attended the Salute to the Nation ceremony June 21 at Division Hill, which opened with a live military demonstration that highlighted how the 10th Mountain Division has contributed to the fight from World War II to current conflicts. Guest speakers at the ceremony were retired Col. Dave Johnson and retired Maj. Bruce Grable, both Vietnam War veterans with history at Fort Drum. (U.S. Army Photos)
Soldiers demonstrate 10th Mountain Division might, pride in country during Salute to the Nation on post
Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (June 24, 2019) – Pride.
That’s what retired Maj. Bruce Grable said that he felt from the reception he received at Fort Drum and after watching the 10th Mountain Division (LI) Soldiers perform a live demonstration June 21 during the Salute to the Nation ceremony on Division Hill.
“This is an Army I have never seen before,” the former Army aviator said. “Just unbelievable. I appreciate that, and I am glad to know that you are on my guard.”
As Salute to the Nation guest speakers, Grable and retired Col. Dave Johnson recalled a time when Americans had an altogether different opinion of its military. Far from the applause they received from the Division Hill audience, Vietnam War veterans experienced public vitriol toward their involvement in an unpopular and divisive conflict.
Johnson said that when he returned home from his third and final tour in Vietnam, his wife and children had brought a large “welcome home” banner to the airport so he could see it from the window.
“The airport manager came up to her and said, ‘Take that banner down. We don’t want anything here to show support for that war.’ So that was my welcome,” he said.
That response, though humiliating, was mild compared to what would follow. Johnson said that he was spat on and called names, and his wife was ridiculed for marrying a service member.
“We were the target because we wore the uniforms,” he said. “I tell you this, I’ve been so happy to see pictures on TV and so forth, of people coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan in the years since 9/11, being welcomed at airports and being applauded. I’m so glad you got that, because you deserve it.”
Johnson also spoke about his three heroes. He credits his wife Judy for enduring the hardships of his deployments. In all of the letters she wrote to him while at war, Johnson said that her messages were always uplifting.
Another hero is Medal of Honor recipient Pfc. David Nash, who was decorated posthumously for his actions during the Vietnam War when he could have chosen to avoid harm but decided to lay his body on top of a grenade to save the lives of his three comrades.
His third hero is Grable. In 1971, Grable and his crew were on a resupply mission when they answered a mayday call from Johnson, whose UH-1 aircraft was shot down in Cambodia. Grable piloted the CH-47 Chinook onto the open field, under intense enemy fire, to rescue the six Soldiers.
“On that day, nobody had told Grable to come rescue us, nobody suggested it,” Johnson said. “He did it on his own, and he didn’t even know us. But we were fellow Soldiers in trouble, and he came and rescued us. God bless him. He and his crew put their lives on the line for us.”
Grable said that considering all of the stories of heroism and self-sacrifice that came out of the war, their story was not unusual, but it was incredibly significant to those lives it impacted.
“It was something that ended up being so personal between him and I, that it really is so unbelievable,” Grable said. “To be absolutely clear, what I did that day was a normal part of our mission. There were people who were doing unbelievable things, unbelievable rescues, and so that was a very small event but huge in my mind.”
Grable accrued more than 1,000 hours of combat aviation by the time he left Vietnam in December 1972. Subsequent assignments took him to Fort Rucker, Alabama, as a company commander, and Fort Bragg, North Carolina, as XVIII Airborne Corps operations officer.
He served on the 10th Mountain Division (LI) staff in 1985 during its reactivation as a light infantry unit, and he was selected to establish the 10th Aviation Brigade at Griffiss Air Force Base, in Rome, New York. Grable retired as 10th Aviation Brigade executive officer in 1989.
“I wish you could have been with me when it all started, because I would have never, ever thought it would have been this grand,” he said. “And it is that – it is grand. I am so proud to be associated with it.”
While Salute to the Nation is an annual event during Mountainfest, the live military demonstration was the first of its kind. Several hundred spectators filled the bleachers and stood while Soldiers showcased the might of this division – from their elite mountain trooper origins in World War II and subsequent operations to include Operation Desert Shield / Storm, Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, and Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
Helicopters flew low to the ground as they delivered squads and artillery pieces into the fight, while tactical vehicles sent a barrage of rounds toward insurgent forces. One, in particular, was taken down with a well-timed over-the-shoulder toss.
Maj. Gen. Brian J. Mennes, 10th Mountain Division (LI) and Fort Drum commander, said that seeing the demonstration by Soldiers on the field, and then hearing the audience join in singing the national anthem, filled him with great pride and appreciation.
“It’s because of your commitment to our Families out here and the community members throughout our nation, that we commit ourselves every day to protect the thoughts and ideas outlined in our Constitution,” he said.