May 17th, 2016 | 11:08 am
I’ve had many memorable experiences during the past thirteen years researching and writing about the Monuments Men and women, but few compare to my trip to Fort Meade, Maryland, to spend time with the 352nd Civil Affairs Command on the occasion of their 50th anniversary. Civil Affair soldiers are doing remarkable work in conflict zones all over the world, in particular those with the 352nd, ranging from rescue missions like the one that followed the earthquake in Haiti, to protecting cultural property and other important monuments in Iraq and Afghanistan war zones. Deployment of these volunteers to troubled spots around the world is increasing in frequency and duration to meet the ever growing needs. Their professionalism and commitment to mission redefine bravery and service to others. It was an honor for me to meet so many of them and listen to some of the challenges they must overcome.
Brigadier General Alan Stolte, Commanding General of the 352nd, and Command Sergeant Major Earl Rocca, both distinguished combat veterans, kindly included me in one of their mid-day briefings before allowing me time to make a presentation addressing General Eisenhower’s leadership role in the preservation of works of art and monuments during World War II. I also had a chance to discuss the experiences of the Monuments Men during World War II—both what worked, and what didn’t, and how we can learn from those experiences to do a better job protecting cultural property in conflict zones today. It’s amazing how life comes full circle: just that morning, I had a wonderful tour of the Fort George G. Meade Museum by its director, Robert Johnson, where I saw numerous photographs of a very young Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton taken in the 1920’s during their assignment to Fort Meade.
The role of those serving in the Army Reserve is greatly misunderstood by the general public. Far from being weekend soldiers, these men and women are often on extended missions that place them in harm’s way alongside active duty soldiers. Like the Monuments Men and women of World War II, those serving in the 352nd Civil Affairs Command often find themselves in operational deployments that take them into war zones including Panama (1989), Desert Shield (1990), Desert Storm (Iraq and Kuwait-1991), Somalia (1993), and Bosnia (1996). They have been in continuous service post-9/11 with multiple tours of duty in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Horn of Africa.
More than 200 guests attended that evening’s Spring Formal wearing their “dress blues.” I was honored to be included in the official receiving line and have the chance to greet each of them and their spouses. Following dinner I delivered formal remarks to the audience along with my thanks for the many sacrifices they and their families make in defense of our nation and, as I pointed out during my comments, in perpetuating the legacy of the Monuments Men and women. But the most poignant moment occurred afterward my remarks with the tribute to those killed in service. “Historically, following battle, units are reassembled and a roll call is conducted to identify those soldiers that are wounded, missing, or killed in action.” Having made that statement, Command Sergeant Rocca conducted roll call, stating each name three times while a photograph of that particular fallen comrade appeared on the screen. By my count there were about seventeen names, including several women, who had been killed in action, another painful reminder that freedom is not free.
Our nation is truly blessed to have such mature, well-informed men and women in uniform doing work that is vital to the best interests of our nation and people of good will everywhere.