If, as they say, good things are worth waiting for, then this was well worth the wait.
At least that's the opinion of Col. James Yarbrough, 173d Airborne Brigade commander, as he discussed the reactivation of the 2d Battalion (Airborne), 503d Infantry, here Jan. 25.
"This addition of another airborne infantry unit in Europe is a tremendous decision by the Army's senior leaders to bring the battalion back on active duty, back on jump status ... and back with the 173d. It's clearly the right decision, the right unit, right place and right time," Yarbrough said.
Yarbrough, who accepted the command colors to the 173d Airborne Brigade during a reflagging ceremony June 12, 2000, said the addition of the 2-503d provides a more robust strategic response force immediately deployable for theater contingencies and allows for increased opportunities to conduct engagement training with our NATO partners and enhances flexibility to conduct two different operations simultaneously.
Closer to home, Yarbrough said this decision clearly results in an enhanced capability for U.S. Army Europe.
"The [173d] brigade will be able to respond to a wide spectrum of theater requirements, providing the only infantry, artillery, engineer, reconnaissance and support forces in Europe capable of conducting airborne assault forcible entry operations," he said.
"This mix of forces and capabilities provide the agility of a rapid deployment force, the mobility of motorized forces and the lethality required to fight on the modern high-intensity battlefield," Yarbrough said.
And, Yarbrough added, the Army couldn't have picked a finer battle-tested, history making, rich-with-tradition battalion to reactivate.
The 2-503d was first activated Aug. 22, 1941 - more than three months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. In June 1942, the battalion was sent to the United Kingdom to prepare for an upcoming airborne operation into North Africa.
History was made Nov. 8, 1942, when the battalion conducted the first-ever parachute assault in American military history, landing on a drop zone near Lourmel, Algeria, and they were recently recognized for that accomplishment last year by President Bush in a proclamation celebrating National Airborne Day, Aug. 16.
During later WWII conflicts, the 2-503d served in five major combat campaigns in the South Pacific Theater, including a mid-December operation on Leyte Island that provided the battalion a staging area for its assault on the Philippine island fortress of Corregidor - nicknamed "The Rock," from which the battalion would later assume both its nick-name and motto.
An estimated 6,550 enemy soldiers were on Corregidor Island when the 503d jumped in February 1945. For its actions during this operation, the 503d was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.
More than 20 years later, as an organic unit of the 173d Airborne Brigade, "The Rock" made history again, this time by becoming the first U.S. combat unit deployed to Vietnam on May 5, 1965.
"During seven years of gallant service there, the [2-503d] battalion earned 14 of its 18 battle streamers, plus five of its seven distinguished unit citations, including two Presidential Unit Citations, our highest unit award," said Yarbrough.
"Members of this battalion fought at such tough battles as Dak To and Bien Hoa, plus they conducted the only combat parachute operation [Junction City] of the Vietnam conflict," Yarbrough said.
The brigade commander also said although his soldiers will never forget where they came from; they'll continue to focus on where they're going, and what they can bring to the fight.
"The Rock soldiers standing before us are, in my humble opinion, a perfect fit to carry these traditions forward into this new century ... everyone is an ambassador symbolizing what's good about America and our Army. They too, feel a sense of purpose, and rest assured they stand before you fully prepared to answer the nation's call," he said.
The new battalion commander readily agrees.
"This past week has been rich with history - and it is the memories of past conflicts, the stories of heroism and sacrifice - and the accomplishments of those that came before us - these are all traits that the present-day Rock paratrooper will strive to emulate ... but I assure you that the paratroopers on the field today are prepared to meet that high mark with an 'eyes front' mentality," said Lt. Col. Dominic Caraccilo, 2-503d commander.
Caraccilo said his executive officer and senior enlisted soldiers get most of the credit for their readiness.
"Majors Randy George and Darrell Wilson are two officers who deserve much of the credit for all this; they were here from the beginning, and did an incredible job putting this battalion together," Caraccilo said.
George and Wilson agreed that standing up an airborne battalion is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and consider themselves lucky to have been a part of it, deflecting credit to a group of superior senior NCOs.
"First Sergeants Michael Grinston and Timothy Watson started their companies from scratch; from the very beginning, they demanded the highest standards and made the seemingly impossible happen daily."
Col. (Ret.) Kenneth Smith, the honorary colonel of the regiment, who was one of dozens of Rock veterans attending the weeklong activities, said he doesn't know who's responsible for the battalion's readiness - he just knows "they're ready." "Just look at these soldiers; look at the way they carry themselves," said Smith, who with his wife, Susan, stopped often and chatted with Rock soldiers during an equipment static display prior to the reactivation ceremony.
"They're well-trained, physically fit and mentally tough. And they're all volunteers - and that's what makes them so great," said Smith, who retired from active duty in February 1993.
And being part of something bigger than yourself, Smith added, is a positive thing.
"What's so great about these young soldiers today being affiliated with a unit like the 2-503d is they get a sense of the past, of the tradition, the heritage, and it can be useful from an instructional view in light of the practical lessons learned from their predecessors," said Smith, who commanded two units - one he formed from scratch - in Vietnam.
Maj. Gen. Robert W. Wagner, SETAF commanding general, said this is truly a unique day.
"Rarely do people have the good fortune to be present at an historic moment in time. Today is one of those times ... a new beginning ... a time when legends of past history meet with and inspire the torchbearers of the future," Wagner said.
"As I thought about this, I believe that perhaps the most important words today are the words and thoughts not spoken," he added.
"But rather, the silent prayers and unspoken memories as we remember and honor the veterans of the 503d in World War II and Vietnam - 60 and 30 years ago. The veterans who did not return. The families. The sacrifices. The service to our nation. With reverence and respect, we silently remember those whose deeds ensured the liberties and freedoms we live today."
Turning to the soldiers standing before him, Wagner spoke directly - and with unabashed pride - as he directed them to conduct their business with quiet professionalism.
"Be disciplined, physically sharp, mentally tough ... be experts with your weapons and your technical skills. It's not what you say but what you do - your professional, dedicated excellence - that counts. Critique your own performance. Never stop short of excellence," he said.
In closing, Wagner reiterated what his battalion and brigade commanders previously emphasized.
"Let there be no doubt, the Rock is what this battalion is and will be - hard, steady strong, reliable and trusted.
"Think about this moment and of the words you will hear from these veterans. Maintain the fire and spirit of service, the patriotism and loyalty you now feel. With your heads up, shoulders back and a smile on your face, commit yourself and your unit to being the best.
"You are the Rock," he said.