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National Airborne Day brings 82nd veterans, soldiers together

Maj. Gen. Michael Bills (center, left), RC-South and Combined Joint Task Force-1 commander, and Command Sgt. Maj. Andrew Barteky, RC-South and CJTF-1 command sergeant major, joined a couple hundred paratroopers from around Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, to celebrate National Airborne Day in a ceremony at the RC-South headquarters Aug. 16, 2014. National Airborne day was established in 2002 by President George W. Bush to honor and recognize the contributions of U.S. paratroopers to their nation and the world.

Ron Waggoner attended jump school at Fort Bragg after he was drafted during the Vietnam War in 1965. On Saturday, he was back in Fayetteville for the first time in 47 years for National Airborne Day.

"It was on my bucket list," said Waggoner, who drove from Florida on Friday for the observance at the Airborne & Special Operations Museum on Bragg Boulevard.

As he wandered among the soldiers and veterans and their families, Waggoner said it brought back a lot of memories and a feeling of camaraderie.

"Running into people you've never seen before and you've got a lot in common," he said. "There's no strangers here."

The annual celebration marked the 74th anniversary of the first jump by the U.S. Army Parachute Test Platoon in 1940 - the world's first paratroopers. But it was also a celebration of Fort Bragg's ties to Fayetteville and the surrounding area, highlighted by a ceremony naming Fayetteville's Outer Loop the Airborne and Special Operations Highway.

"Their incredible commitment and selfless sacrifice will be remembered forever in this road," said Tony Tata, state secretary of transportation and a retired brigadier general who served in the 82nd Airborne Division.

The Outer Loop, or Interstate 295 as it will also be known, will link Fort Bragg to Interstate 95 north of Fayetteville. It's currently open from I-95 to Ramsey Street and from Murchison Road to Bragg Boulevard. It will stretch from I-95 to the All American Freeway by August 2016, and to Cliffdale Road by sometime in 2018.

Brig. Gen. Kurt Sonntag, deputy commander of Special Operations Command, called the renaming a fitting tribute and "a gentle reminder of the relationship that bonds our military and civilian communities."

Airborne Day is also about honoring individual paratroopers, said Maj. Gen. John Nicholson Jr., commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division. He rattled off examples from every war of the past half century, including one related to him by Gen. David E. Grange about a paratrooper in Korea. The soldier, badly injured and not expected to survive, was fumbling in his pocket as he was evacuated from a hill. Grange asked what the man was searching for, and the soldier said it was his airborne wings.

"He said, 'I want to be wearing them on my chest when I die,'" Nicholson said.

The selfless courage of the paratrooper regiments, Nicholson said, was captured by Gen. James Gavin when he said, "Show me a man who will jump from an airplane, and I'll show you a man who will fight."

This weekend is also the 14th anniversary of the opening of the Airborne & Special Operations Museum. Museum officials said it was shaping up to be their busiest day ever, with about 4,000 visitors expected.

For Airborne Day, the field outside the museum saw precision parachute landings from the Golden Knights and a display of military weapons and equipment. Children crawled around vehicles and artillery, while soldiers demonstrated procedures to the hundreds of visitors who strolled through the exhibits.

Makiah Ross, 17, who was in town from Michigan to visit family, got the chance to heft an 18-pound M-249 machine gun on her shoulder.

"It's really interesting," she said of the event, "and it brings everyone together."

phillipsg@fayobserver.com

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