August 2nd, 2017, Fort Campbell, KY.
As Project Vigil reaches its 5th Anniversary, and this being Veterans Day weekend, I decided to dedicate a blog post to the active duty soldiers and veterans whom I've had the honor of meeting over the past few years. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank all members of the US Military, active duty or retired, for their service to our country. I hope you enjoy the post.
Jack Womer and the birth of Project Vigil
I made my first trip to Normandy at age nine. During that trip I met the very first war veteran of my life. His name was Jack Womer and he was just a few days shy of 95 when we met.
Jack served in WW2, first with the 29th Ranger Battalion, then with the 1st Demolition Section (known as the "Filthy Thirteen") of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne. Jack fought in Normandy, Operation Market Garden, the Battle of the Bulge and then went on to Hitler's Eagle's Nest. After meeting Jack, I read his autobiography. His book is what inspired me to start Project Vigil.
Jack Womer signing my travel journal on June 5th, 2012.
Arromanches-Les-Bains, June 2014
Someday I hope to be able to tell my grandchildren that I once stood and shared a laugh with WW2 veterans.
"Be loyal, remember your country is the greatest in the world. It's a wonderful country."
Click here to see the moment I met WW2
veteran Leif Maseng.
Pointe-Du-Hoc, June, 2014. Standing with a US Army Ranger.
Receiving my first challenge coin, June 6th, 2014.
The two soldiers who joined us in folding our 48-star flag. This occurred right after I had saluted on Omaha Beach, June 6th, 2014.
Then SFC Abram Pinnington took a picture of me on Omaha Beach, which was later shown on the website of the US Army. Click here to see the page.
Meeting USAF Colonel Arnald Gabriel (Ret.), WW2 Infantry veteran. He was the Commander and Conductor of the United States Air Force Band, United States Air Force Symphony Orchestra, and Singing Sergeants from 1964 to 1985.
On the far left of this photo is my friend SGT Wes McKithern. When I think of America, I think of Wes. He's a humble, hard working man. He loves his wife, his family, his dogs, his job and America. Wes served in combat in Iraq with the 1/502nd Infantry of the 101st Airborne and is currently in the reserves serving as a Combat Camera Specialist with the 982nd COMCAM Co. Thank you for your service, Wes!
When I met this D-Day veteran of the 4th Infantry, he was seated in his wheel chair. I asked if I could shake his hand. He made the effort of standing to shake my hand and to pose for this picture.
Meeting soldiers in the cemetery
During my long days standing and teaching in the cemetery, I'm lucky to be able to meet all kinds of people. My favorite encounters though have always been with active duty soldiers.
Paying our respects at the grave of John "Peepnuts" Hale of the Filthy Thirteen. John was Jack Womer's good friend. As a tradition, his grave is always the last one I visit before leaving the cemetery. I was fortunate to be joined that day by these paratroopers.
Then SFC Ortiz pins his own jump wings onto my collar. Those jump wings were once pinned onto his collar by his own father. He did this as a gesture of gratitude towards Project Vigil. I keep his wings on my collar and will always be grateful to him for his kindness and generosity.
Two Army Rangers and a Green Beret, Cadre from the GoRuck challenge that was taking place in Normandy over D-Day week of 2015.
One of the most powerful moments in Project Vigil. The Captain on the right in this picture shook my hand and told me: "It's a great thing you're doing for us out here, brother." David and Joey, if you're reading this, thank you for your service.
At Philip Germer's grave, June 2017. Standing to my left is the Chaplain of the 82nd Airborne Division. What an honor to get to meet him.
Not every soldier visits the cemetery in uniform. I met CPT Charlie Noble in June 2017. I recognized that he was a soldier thanks to three hints I've been able to develop over the years: Under Armour, Oakleys and short cut hair! An excellent man and a great friend, I'm so grateful to have met him. As I write this Charlie is currently on deployment. Be safe, Charlie!
Fort Campbell and the 506th
In June of 2017, the Battalion Commander of the 2-506 invited me to Fort Campbell to spend a day with his leaders. It turns out, my reason for going there was to be made an Honorary Member of the Regiment (HMOR), though this was completely unknown to me at the time. Click here to read the article I wrote about this experience. While at Fort Campbell, I met many people whom I would end up staying in contact with.
The first is the Battalion Commander himself, LTC Kurt J. Smith. He is the person who invited me to Fort Campbell, and also someone who had been following Project Vigil ever since the beginning in 2014. A proud Army Ranger, Old Guard and Delta Force veteran, meeting LTC Smith was truly an honor. I will never be able to thank him enough for what he has done for me. Kurt, thank you for your 33 years of service!
LTC Kurt J. Smith when he was Regimental Deputy Commanding Officer with The Old Guard.
LTC Smith pinning the Commander's Award for Public Service on my uniform. CSM Thomas Conn looks on.
(Photo by SGT Patrick Kirby)
Over the years, I have met many people, but I can count on one hand how many are as special as LTC Kurt J. Smith. He is truly an outstanding man, a true American hero and a very good friend.
The thrill of a lifetime. I got to meet Bradford Freeman of Easy Company, 1942. Brad is a true Toccoa man. What an honor to have met an original member of the Band of Brothers.
Major Josh Schneider, of the 2-506. Josh, thank you for your service.
Also there that day was LTC Smith's Command Sergeant Major, Thomas Conn. I actually spent most of my day with him, as we rucked together that morning. At one point he entrusted me with the Currahee battle flag and together we led the ruck, side by side. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. CSM Conn made sure I had an amazing day, keeping me company from start to finish, whether it was maneuvering in the forest during our laser-tag battle or at lunchtime, giving me a hand with my MRE. He also helped during the dining-in to pin the awards on my uniform. Tom, thank you for your friendship, your excellent advice and thank you for your service.
CSM Conn and I after our ruck on August 2nd, 2017.
On my most recent trip to Normandy in June 2019, CSM Conn informed me that he would be visiting France at the same time I would. We decided that we couldn't miss seeing each other, so we got together on June 4th.
During our visit, CSM Conn (now Brigade CSM) was not alone. With him were LTC John Gabriel, Battalion Commander of 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, and LTC Chris Midberry, Battalion Commander of 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment. They were accompanied by their Command Sergeant Majors (CSM Whitted and CSM Harbour, respectively). We spent all of June 4th together, first heading out to the locations where LTC Robert Lee Wolverton and PVT Philip Germer were killed on D-Day, and then to the D-Day Experience museum. That evening, we all went to dinner, where these experienced and seasoned soldiers, spoiled me with sound advice about military life, and about life in general. It was an evening full of lessons and great stories, and I will never forget it. Gentlemen, thank you for your service.
From left to right: Me, LTC Midberry, LTC Gabriel, CSM Whitted, CSM Conn and CSM Harbour. LTC Gabriel handed me a business card, at the back of which he had written: "Work hard, be a good teammate, make good decisions, learn every day, and have fun!" I keep that card close to me at all times.
To all those brave soldiers I've met along the way, and all those who are serving or have served our country, thank you for your service.