'He was many things to many people': Legacy of retired Fort Bragg Command Sgt. Maj. Kenneth 'Rock' Merritt is celebrated
By RACHAEL RILEY | The Fayetteville Observer | Published: March 19, 2021
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — The flag-draped coffin of retired Command Sgt. Maj. Kenneth "Rock" Merritt, 97, was carried into Manna Church on Thursday by his beloved paratroopers.
Nearly an hour later Merritt's daughter, Dianna Pflueger, clutched the same flag.
The past week has been a "whirlwind," since her dad died March 10, Pflueger said prior to the service.
"The Army's been fantastic," she said. "They have responded like the big family that they are."
Pflueger said her father's friends from around the world and state have shared condolences, well-wishes and memories through Facebook and cards.
Despite impending weather, more than 100 soldiers, veterans and friends joined the family Thursday to say goodbye to one of Fort Bragg's most cherished heroes. Merritt was an original member of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment from its inception in 1942 and was part of the regiment during World War II.
"They always say, 'Once a 508th member, you're always a 508th,'" Pflueger said. "And that's true."
Years after his retirement from the Army, Merritt served as president for the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment five times.
Chris Harris, with the Family and Friends of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, shared his memories of Merritt on Thursday.
Harris said Merritt epitomized "the greatest generation" of those who lived during the Great Depression and served the country during World War II.
Harris described first meeting Merritt in October 2013 at a Fayetteville reunion for the Friends and Family of the Parachute Infantry Regiment.
"Over bounces 91-year-old Rock Merritt, saying, 'Howdy partner. I'm Rock,'" Harris recalled.That carefree introduction parked lasting friendship.
He said that early on he realized how important Merritt's family was to him.
Pflueger said the soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 2nd Battalion 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division and 18th Airborne Corps have been like an extended family.
She remembered meeting a young soldier in her father's home state of Oklahoma who wanted to shake her hand when he learned she was Merritt's daughter.
Merritt's granddaughter Dixie Applegate spoke of her grandfather attending a ceremony in Normandy and someone there asking her grandfather to sign an old World War II Jeep.
His granddaughter Andreanna Randell recounted how when she visited Fayetteville last June, a woman in the gift shop talked to her for 30 minutes after learning Merritt was her grandfather.
His granddaughter Dusty D'Orsai told the crowd of how her grandfather would play in the ocean with his grandchildren.
"The respect and awe all these people have for him is amazing, because that was my grandpa. I saw him as grandpa," D'Orsai said. "And all these people see him as this military hero, and I get that, but my perspective is different."
Among all his awards he displayed in a glass cabinet in his living room, Merritt kept a photo of his wife, Sally, who died in 2006, with a light shining on it, Harris said.
Merritt often spoke of his children, Kenneth Merritt, Gerald Merritt and Pflueger, Harris said.
"You clearly have shared your father, with our country, and with the world for decades," he told Merritt's family. "Today, we express sincere gratitude for your sacrifice and sharing. Clearly, Rock had a second family with the Army airborne community, and his beloved paratroopers."
After his retirement, Merritt spent more than 40 years returning to Fort Bragg to make speeches, attend command changes, promotions and retirement ceremonies and mentored young squad leaders, Harris said.
It was a charge given to him by Gen. Omar Bradley when Merritt retired and decided to remain in Fayetteville, Harris said.
Former President Barack Obama spoke about Merritt in 2014 during a commemoration ceremony of the 70th-anniversary of D-Day, telling the crowd Merritt was known across Fort Bragg not just for his involvement in D-Day, or his 35 years of Army service, but also for his continued support of the paratrooper community.
Harris said Merritt maintained a relationship with 508th Infantry Regiment paratroopers and veterans and flew to El Paso, Texas, in 2019 when a fellow paratrooper, retired Lt. Col. Bob Chisholm, was honored.
Chisholm, who was unable to attend Thursday's celebration of life ceremony, sent a message calling Merritt "a great American hero in every sense," Harris said.
"Today, we thank Rock Merritt for preserving the legacy of the United States Army, the Army airborne community, and the 508th," Harris said.
Lt. Gen. Michael "Erik" Kurilla, commander of the 18th Airborne Corps, said Merritt lived many lives, "each with a story until itself."
Merritt was the only command sergeant major to serve as the Corps' top senior-enlisted adviser twice — first selected for the spot from 1962 to 1966 and again from 1973 to 1977.
Merritt was a World War II hero who earned the Distinguished Cross, jumped into Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge, but was more than that, Kurilla said.
He was the "embodiment" of a paratrooper with a big personality and big heart, Kurilla said.
Merritt brought Fort Bragg and the 18th Airborne Corps into the post-war Army as the Corps' first command sergeant major, but was still "bigger than that," Kurilla said.
"You see, Rock Merritt was a figure in just about every critical cultural moment in American history of his time," he said.
Merritt was present during the enrollment of the "Little Rock Nine"— the first Black students to integrate Little Rock High School in 1957 — and the integration of Old Mississippi in 1962 during the civil rights movement, Kurilla said.
He met numerous presidents, Kurilla continued, represented the U.S. at Utah Beach during the 75th anniversary of D-Day, and was among the first inductees of the 82nd Airborne Division's "Hall of Fame."
"He was many things to many people," the three-star general said, calling Merritt a "master storyteller and loyal friend" who would offer unannounced strangers to his home a cup of coffee and share his stories about historic airborne leaders Lt. Gen. James Gavin and Gen. Matthew Ridgway, former President John. F. Kennedy's visit to Fort Bragg, or the time he told President Obama the 18th Airborne Corps was "the best unit" in the military.
Kurilla said he'll remember Merritt's "heart," along with his love for paratroopers.
Kurilla said Merritt showed that love by refusing to sit in the distinguished guest section at ceremonies, preferring to sit with the paratroopers.
He did not leave the ceremonies until he shook every paratrooper's hand, Kurilla said.
"So Rock Merritt was a warrior — yes. Rock Merritt was a World War II hero — yes. He was all of that, but he was also a man who exuded empathy," Kurilla said. "
"He was a man with a heart that beat so loudly and so strongly that when he died, France, the Netherlands, Washington D,C., and hundreds of thousands of Americans and all of Fayetteville felt it," Kurillla said.
In delivering Merritt's eulogy, the Rev. Damion Quaye, Merritt's pastor at St. Matthew's United Methodist Church, shared a verse from the Bible's Psalm 144:1.
Quaye said it's a book of the Bible he doesn't often quote from during funerals.
Yet the words, "Praise be to the Lord my rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle ...," seemed as if Merritt was speaking to him, and had his name "written all over" it, Quaye said.
The pastor said he believed Merritt was born for service, comparing him to the biblical with David who stood up to defeat the giant Goliath.
"David understood who he was and he spent his whole life living for that purpose. Rock did the same," Quaye said.
Following Thursday's ceremony, Merritt was interred at LayFayette Memorial Park West.
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