It was a sight that so overwhelmed Alma Powell, wife of former Secretary of State and retired Gen. Colin Powell, tears streamed down her face.
On Friday morning the United States Infantry welcomed into its legendary brotherhood more than 200 soldiers from F Company, 2nd Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment during a basic training graduation on Soldiers Field next to the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center at Patriot Park. The graduation was prelude to the grand opening of the museum, a monument built to honor the Infantry.
“Those kids were not even born when I first saw one of these,” Alma Powell said. “It is a simple tradition that builds on itself from generation to generation. It was very emotional.”
Those who came out for the 9:30 a.m. graduation were treated to a Black Hawk helicopter demonstration followed by a crowd-pleasing parachute exhibition by members of the Silver Wings.
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Halfway through the graduation ceremony, Maj. Gen. Michael D. Barbero, commander of the United States Infantry School and Fort Benning, welcomed the members of F Company into “the elite band of brotherhood that is the Infantry.”
The general also made a point to explain to the new soldiers that they stood upon a field that had been dusted with “sacred soil” gathered from 10 pivotal battlefields in American history.
“It’s definitely special,” distinguished honor graduate Spc. Nicholas Ellis said of his march across Soldiers Field. “It’s also a bonding experience. It’s something we have together that no one can really take from us.”
One by one, the men of F Company filed past the official party and viewing stands, their faces red and dripping sweat. Leading the formation was 1st Lt. Ruslan K. Emelyanov, a former Russian combat veteran who joined the U.S. Army after emigrating from Russia in 2001.
“I came over here out of curiosity because I’d heard good things about the United States,” Emelyanov said. “So, I instantly fell in love.”
Emelyanov started out as an enlisted Infantry soldier, then went to officers candidate school at Fort Benning. Since joining the U.S. Army, he has deployed to Afghanistan.
“What a country,” Powell said after watching Emelyanov command his troops during the graduation. “Where else but America? I had to pinch myself and say the Cold War’s over, pal. It’s OK.”
Kathy Monahan of New Jersey attended Friday’s graduation in support of her brother, Pfc. Thomas Monahan.
“We feel really lucky to be able to see him graduate on a day like this,” Kathy Monahan said. “And we were kind of talking about this earlier. My brother originally wanted to leave for boot camp in January and he got put off until March, but it actually turned out to be good because we got to see all these cool events.”
In addition to his sister, the private’s parents, Bill and Jeanny Monahan, also attended the ceremony.
Ellis said he too felt fortunate to have been assigned to F Company because of the significant role his unit played in Friday’s events.
“It’s a really big honor because when you’re selected to go to basic it’s really random where you’re going to be and what company,” Ellis said.
“It just so happened by chance and the grace of God that it was on a day like today, this special time. It’s just one more step in a long journey.”
Ellis’ next step won’t take him far. He’ll soon attend Airborne School at Fort Benning before going out for Special Forces selection.
Capt. Larry Steward of Fort Benning and his family braved the heat and humidity to watch a family friend graduate.
“It’s a great ceremony for family and friends to watch,” Steward said. “Especially someone that’s never seen a military event like this. It’s pretty interesting to a lot of people.”
Torie Cross, wife of graduating Pfc. Thierry Cross, said basic training was tough on her 36-year-old husband and their family, but the Army is his first love and she wholeheartedly supported his decision to join.
“I’m very proud of him,” Cross said.
“He says it’s been rough. It’s been difficult,” the wife said. “But I’m very proud of him. It was a long struggle for him.”
ContactLily Gordon at 706-576-6284