Headquarters officers don’t consider the previous two COVID years as lost for the 82nd Airborne Division’s All American Week at Fort Bragg, N.C. They were canceled by the pandemic, but, says Maj. Gen. Christopher LaNeve: “I wouldn’t say that we lost something. I would say we had a missed opportunity, like the whole world had a missed opportunity. But we’re sprinting. We’re sprinting right now to stake our claim at our point in time in history.”
That opportunity was regained last week.
Veterans, families, international visitors and community members made their way to the world’s largest military base and resumed the tradition, where they witnessed some 19,000 paratroopers train, compete and honor those who came before them. The week kicked off with a traditional 4-mile run on Monday and included a memorial observance for those from the division who have passed away; induction ceremonies for the division’s Hall of Fame; competitions, from boxing to softball to culinary arts; awards presentations for top soldiers and jumpmasters; and a spectacular division review on a blustery Pike Field, named for the first of seven Medal of Honor recipients who served in the 82nd. The division’s renowned chorus and band performed before guests at every step of the week, reviving not just a tradition but a strategic mission of culture development to inspire new generations.
“Gatherings like this are about the camaraderie of the division, a reminder of the history of the division – and all of that is a reminder of what you’ve got to be ready to do in the future,” said former division commander Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, who went on to serve as Supreme Allied Commander-Europe before his retirement from the Army in 2018. “These young troopers who are seeing this for the first time have a better understanding of what wearing that patch means, why it’s important, and the legacy they’ve got to uphold.”
Scaparrotti was one of nine former 82nd Airborne legends inducted into the division’s hall of fame during the week. He joined personnel ranging from noncoms to combat officers, spanning from World War I to the Global War on Terrorism.
The 82nd Airborne Hall of Fame, introduced in 2018, is one All American Week development of recent years that has emphasized connection between active-duty paratroopers and those who shaped the division’s legacy after it was formed early during World War I.
All-American Week debuted in 1979, consolidating multiple separate events into one week of competition, commemoration, inspection and connection with former personnel and the community. “They were normally annual events – the commemoration of the war dead, Memorial Day; normally, there was an annual review in June or sometime during the summer, sometimes with the change of command but often as a stand-alone event,” explained 82nd Airborne Division Memorial Museum Director Brig. Gen. John W. Aarsen. “And then you also had the division’s founding. You would end up having an event in May, June and August.”
In recent years, with the 2014 establishment of the division’s Hall of Heroes and remodeled museum to go along with the Hall of Fame, active-duty soldiers are educated early and often about legacy and culture, the annual crescendo of which is All American Week.
“They come (to the museum) during their first week,” Aarsen said, noting that the division’s past heroes honored there were once 18-24-year-olds, as well, a message for those who are new. “They (past figures of the division) are no different … they were just given the opportunity to excel, and through the training and through the leadership of the division, they did the great things that I get to tell about every day. It’s an easy story to tell because of the soldiers … we keep reinforcing that it’s special and unique to be here. It’s special and unique, but it’s in some ways ordinary. That’s what we have to get people to understand. You’re ordinary until you’re given that opportunity to succeed. What you do in that moment, or that crucible, is what makes you an 82nd soldier.”
“There’s a special way that the entire week brings the division together,” Maj. Gen. LaNeve said. “We compete against each other, but we also celebrate what it means to be a paratrooper, what it means to be a member of the 82nd. You do that in a couple of ways. You do it through competition. You also do it by remembering our fallen comrades. And it brings together veterans who come back and talk about their experiences. The experiences aren’t that different. They are shared experiences. When you put all that together, it ties us to our history and where we are going in our future.”
Three of the nine Hall of Fame inductees were critical to success in the June 1944, Allied liberation missions of Normandy, France, in World War II. Descendants of Col. Benjamin Vandervoort, who led combat operations on D-Day and was famously portrayed by John Wayne in the hit movie “The Longest Day,” were on hand to receive honors. Also inducted were Capt. John Sauls, whose single-handed bravery under fire was essential to U.S. success in the bloody battle of LaFiere Bridge during the Allied invasion; and 1st Lt. Waverly Wray, a platoon leader who was killed in Holland after heroic fighting in Normandy and Operation Market Garden.
Maurice Renaud, president of Amis des Veterans Americains of Normandy, came to All American Week and the Hall of Fame ceremony to express his nation’s thanks to the airborne troops who freed his community from Nazi occupation. Renaud remembered in particular Vandervoort who broke his ankle after jumping into Normandy with the 82nd and frequented his father’s drugstore during U.S. occupation in Ste. Mere-Eglise. “He was coming almost every day to the pharmacy, and he developed a friendship with my father,” explained Renaud, whose AVA organization is aligned with The American Legion during annual D-Day anniversary events and activities.
In 1963, when Alexandre Renaud, mayor of Ste. Mere-Eglise at the time of the Allied invasion, brought Maurice to the United States, they met Vandervoort for lunch in Washington D.C. “He was a thin guy, very reserved … and a very nice person. He was very pleased to see my father.”
Paratroopers from the 82nd – including the chorus – continue to visit Ste. Mere-Eglise for D-Day anniversary activities, which include parachute jumps over the Merderet River valley where their military ancestors made history in the hours before the massive beach landings.
Like All American Week, the annual Normandy appearance remains important to the culture for new generations of paratroopers, LaNeve explained.
“When you dig into the history of our division, and you get to walk where some of our legends have walked, it comes alive. The opportunity to bring young paratroopers over there to understand where our division cut our teeth, it can be life changing. Those paratroopers of World War II – when they were in England and getting ready to come over and do the jump – weren’t very much different than the paratroopers (today) … They are Americans who have volunteered to do something extraordinary. They have the same dreams that the paratroopers had back then. And they have the same commitment.”
Today’s paratroopers are creating their own histories, one they will be compelled to share with future generations, he added, noting that soldiers of the 82nd have volunteered to deploy to orphanages and local communities in Poland to help with the influx of Ukrainian refugees from the ongoing war with Russia – a story that needs to be told.
“These are stories we should tell, and it should spark people to want to serve,” Maj. Gen. LaNeve said. “I don’t know what it’s like to not to have that desire to want to make things around me better, to want to serve … serve my fellow brothers and sisters in arms. But I would be a shell of myself if I didn’t have that in me.”
When a soldier leaves the military, he added, “we want them to be ambassadors. My hope is that they open up and say something about the 82nd and tell the stories. It’s got to be told in our families. Our families have got to tell about the importance of serving. That’s got to be instilled in them.”
The Army, he explained, gave him direction and opportunity when he was a young man coming through the University of Arizona ROTC program. But everyone in the division he now leads, he is quick to add, has his or her own rationale for joining, serving and learning from the Army experience.
“There’s 19,000 paratroopers out there, and every one of them has a story why they serve. Talk to the 240 gunner down there in a rifle company. That’s the story that needs to be told. Why did you join? Why did you raise your hand? Who served in your family? Talk to the 13 Bravo that’s down there on a gun. Why did he serve? Why did she serve? Talk to the mechanic that’s working on more pieces of equipment than we can manage to keep up. Why are they doing it day in and day out? The riggers, packing our chutes. We have a bigger parachute than we had 10 years ago. They are packing a bigger chute that takes more time, and they are doing it to incredible standards. Talk to them about why they joined. We can focus on the two-star, but the real heroes of this division, they don’t wear stars.”
Twenty-five-year-old Lt. Danica Kline, an ordnance officer from Washington state, said she chose the Army to make a difference after a tragic incident. “I joined the Army when I was in my senior year of high school, and there was a school shooting at the school like two miles down the road from mine,” she said. “It really significantly impacted me and my thought processes. I wanted to do something that was more important than myself.”
The theme of All American Week 2022 was “Stronger Together” – a reference to the division’s camaraderie and personal connections with veterans, for certain, but also to the resumption of the event after two years of COVID cancellations.
“We are trying to show that when we come together and we recognize paratroopers of the past, the older paratroopers get to mentor the brand-new paratroopers of today,” said Lt. Col. Brett Lea, a public affairs officer for the division. “This is a way to show the paratroopers that this is a legacy that was built by (their predecessors) that’s now your legacy moving forward. That’s what All American Week is all about. You can do that by Zoom, but it’s really hard. It helps to have everybody physically here. Everybody’s slapping backs and hugging and shaking hands, watching the division review, watching the division run. You can’t replicate that in a COVID environment. We want to avoid saying things are ‘lost.’ It’s just different. Can we say that it’s better when we’re all together on Pike Field or all together on Long Street running? Of course, we can. That’s what we live for. That is where you can take a week and stop and say, ‘Holy cow, I’m in the greatest division in the Army.’”
The culture, the commander explained, can’t be fully understood without involvement from those who served in the past. “We can’t lose the memory of our veterans,” Maj. Gen. LaNeve said. “I’ve said it a couple of times at a couple of ceremonies: ‘We stand on the shoulders of legends.’ A lot of those legends, you will never hear their names – specialists, sergeants, whatever – the names that aren’t written about. Those are legends inside this division, that we stand upon. Everybody who serves in the 82nd, whether you jump out of an airplane, or you come in on that first wave of an aircraft that lands on a flight landing strip, or you’re in a support role – we’re all paratroopers. That ethos, of being a paratrooper – being part of the first – is different than any other division, and that ties us to the history.”
“Even for an old-timer like me, these are great days,” Gen. Scaparrotti said after his Hall of Fame induction during All American Week. “They are just filled with memories and emotion and anticipation for a future that’s going to be just as great.”