Yesterday, I landed at a very familiar airport – wow, I remember when Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International was built and opened. It was a grand sight and a matter of pride for us as Atlantans. It represented our graduation from a sleepy southern city of history and charm into a great international destination. The Phoenix had truly risen from the flames. And so as the taxi took me to the Hilton Atlanta I looked over and saw the place where I last saw my mom, “Snooks” West alive. The old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium has long since been demolished; it’s now a parking lot for Turner Field. I used to sell Cokes there as a little boy because our church, Fort Street United Methodist, had a concession booth there. I fondly recalled catching the number 6 Georgia Blvd bus to head over to the old baseball park.
Towering above the skyline, I could see the framework of the new football stadium — sadly I’ve never attended a game in the Georgia Dome. The cab motored on and off to the left I saw the place of my birth, Hughes Spalding Hospital, which is part of the Grady Memorial system. Funny, the taxi driver who is originally from Nigeria asked me the litmus test for Atlantans — “are you a Grady baby?” To wit I replied, yes sir, to include graduating from Grady High School. We took the left exit off Interstate 75-85 onto Piedmont and I looked over towards the Old Fourth Ward as he pulled into the parking lot for the Hilton Atlanta. My room looks out on the skyline of my hometown, which I watched grow as a little boy.
I am a proud Atlantan and a favorite son who has returned for the purpose of gathering with fellow American Warriors. The First Infantry Division is here in my hometown for its annual reunion, and it’s the 25th anniversary of Operation Desert Storm, my first combat deployment. I’m a Big Red One Soldier and part of an impeccable legacy of service. Consider that this week began with the 72nd anniversary of Operation Overlord, D-Day, the greatest invasion in history at Normandy. And on that memorable day, June 6th, 1944, it was the men of the Big Red One who hit the shores of Omaha Beach. They faced the horrific cauldron of combat, relentlessly pressed on and achieved victory.
The Division also served honorably at a time when this nation turned its back on these Big Red One Soldiers, in Vietnam. It’s such a blessing to see these men and say what wasn’t said then…”Welcome home.” And it was a blessing and honor that I was privileged to join the line, the legacy of the Big Red One as a young captain serving as the Task Force Fire Support Officer for the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment — “Rangers” — Semper Paratus, Always Ready.
Today this great division continues to answer America’s call to arms serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, a new generation of young men and women who wear the time-honored patch of a single Red One set against a green background.
So this Saturday morning I will stand before this gathering of warriors, old and new, and tell them of the story that brought me to this moment. How, not far from that Hilton Atlanta at 651 Kennesaw Avenue, a World War II veteran, my dad, “Buck” West, sat down with me on those steps and challenged me to be the first officer in our family. That humble corporal, who is now buried just north of Atlanta with his “Battle Buddy” in Marietta National Cemetery, set my feet on this path. So now, as his middle son, I can return to this place, my home, where I first donned an Army uniform as a high school JROTC Cadet in 1976. And fifteen years later, in 1991, I earned that venerable patch on my right shoulder of the First Infantry Division.And I can proudly sing the division song
“Toast of the Army
Favorite son, hail to the Brave Big Red One
Always the first to thirst for a fight
No foe shall challenge our right to victory
We take the field, a grand sight to see
Pride of the Infantry
Men of a great division
Courage is our tradition
Forward the Big Red One.”
As I continue to serve this great Republic, I shall live by the motto of the Big Red One…”No mission too difficult, No sacrifice too great, duty first!”
I’m proud to be the son of Buck and Snooks West. I’m proud to be an Atlantan. I’m proud to be an American Soldier. I am privileged to have served in the First Infantry Division. And if you’re in the area, come on by the Hilton Atlanta and meet some real American Soldiers, the men and women who’ve worn the distinguished patch of America’s first and oldest combat infantry division.