Thousands gathered on March 19 at the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center at Patriot Park to pay tribute to the 234-year legacy of the United States Infantry.
At the center of the celebration — which marked the opening of major portions of the mammoth military museum — were the members of B Company, 1st Battalion, 50th Infantry Regiment.
More than 3,000 spectators witnessed approximately 140 Infantry school soldiers march into history as the first graduates to tread upon Soldier Field, which had been dusted with soil collected from the battlefields of eight pivotal wars in infantry history.
The day’s events also included an air show, the dedication of 2nd Regiment Gallery by Harry Gray — the largest individual donor to the museum — and the dedication of the Korean War Gallery by retired Gen. Sun Yup Paik.
Guest speaker Command Sgt. Maj. Marvin Hill, the senior enlisted adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, who was top U.S. commander in Iraq, shared with the graduates a message from his boss.
“Be proud of what you’ve accomplished and never, never stop learning,” he said. “You’ve increased your capacity to incorporate new tactics, techniques and procedures into your ruck sack and never stop filling it up. Because it’s one of those stored items that may one day save your life or that of a brother. We are an Army at war and you can never be too prepared.”
Between the earth-shaking aerial demonstration, the tear-jerking Sacred Soil Ceremony and the humbling presence of military heroes, distinguished honor graduate Pfc. Evan P. Gallagher, 21, of Stafford, Va., said the ceremony far exceeded his expectations.
“We didn’t really understand the importance of exactly what was going on probably until about two days ago when we started rehearsals,” Gallagher said. “And then sitting here today just seeing the fact that that is the soil from all these major battles … how important they were, how we got to where we were today because of those major battles. The fact that I’m now joined in the ranks of those when I’ve always been on the sidelines just reading about it, it’s something else.”
Honor graduate Spc. Allen Bridgeman, 28, said he didn’t quite grasp the significance of his role in Thursday’s ceremony until moments before he stepped onto the parade field.
“The ceremony was awesome,” Bridgeman said. “I don’t really think it hit us until we showed up earlier and saw the helicopters flying overhead. And it started putting some of our war games into thought. The significance of what we’re about to try to go do, and then being in the presence of people who are veterans of doing the things that we’ve dreamed of doing. It was awesome.”
The Sacred Soil Ceremony featured descendants of notable patriots, such as Alexander Hamilton, Theodore Roosevelt and Alvin York as well as infantry war heroes, such as Lt. Gen. Hal Moore and Command Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley as soil spreaders. Actor Sam Elliott, who portrayed Plumley in the movie “We Were Soldiers,” narrated the ceremony.
Later in the afternoon, Elliott tried to describe the experience: “In a nutshell, overwhelming on some level, certainly I’m honored and proud to be part of it.”
Retired Maj. Gen. Jerry White, chairman of the National Infantry Foundation, said he awoke Thursday morning knowing it would be an emotional day for him.
The soil ceremony alone was enough to bring tears to his eyes.
“I did cry because if you think about what that really means and I tell people that I’m sure that in that soil there’s some blood of Americans there, and it’s very meaningful. Not just today, but it will be forever as long as we graduate soldiers on that field. It’ll be there.”
Dirk Kempthorne, great-grandson of Pvt. Charles Kempthorne of the 3rd Wisconsin Infantry, who was a wounded Union soldier at Antietam, was one of just a handful of soil spreaders. The former secretary of Interior, governor and senator from Idaho called the experience “a great honor” and “very emotional.”
“When you think of national treasures, you have to think of these infantryman and for them on their graduation day to now cross this soil of sacrifice and valor of all those comrades in arms that went before them, it has to inspire them. So this is a good day for America,” Kempthorne said.
Tears welled in the eyes of Theodore Roosevelt IV — grandson of Theodore Roosevelt Jr. who earned the Medal of Honor on D-Day — as he described how he felt while scattering the sandy earth on which his grandfather fought on June 6, 1944.
“Well, first of all it’s very moving and we’re commemorating the service that American soldiers have done on behalf of our country,” Roosevelt said.
“And we saw today another company that was inducted into the Army, and that’s moving. And I’m very proud to see what we are doing today, recognizing our military and how important they are in our lives.”