Over 400 Alumni of the Golden Knights, family, friends and current US Army Parachute Team members came together this past weekend to celebrate Fifty-two years of camradre built serving as Ambassadors of Good Will representing all Soldiers across the world.
Former Knights’ came rolling in from all parts of theUSthe first of the week to prepare for all the activities planned for the 2011 Golden Knight Alumni Reunion. There was a continual flow of alumni’s touring the beautiful headquarters facility onFortBragg, which was a dream for the “Olden teamies” who birthed the World Renown Champions in mere wooden barracks over five decades ago.
Tony Thacker, son of former Golden Knight Jean Paul Thacker offered tandem parachute jumps for GKAA at Raeford Drop zone for reduced rates and donated $14.00 from each jump to theNationalSkydivingMuseum.
Sergeant First Class Paul Sachs set up a tournament for the Golfers in the crowd and around twenty teammates took the challenge to hit the greens and had a beautiful day on Friday at Cypress Lakes Golf Course.
Tim D’Annunzio also offered the Alumni an opportunity to fly like a bird at Paraclete XP Sky Venture wind tunnel, which now is an awesome new aspect in the skydiving community. For the veteran jumpers of yesteryear, flying on a cone of air was a creative thought to the skydive world years past.
Friday evening the team gathered for a festive family reunion environment at the Napoleon Hospitality suite and then moved to the Grand Ballroom for even more socializing, heavy horderves and dancing till wee hours of the morning.
There were so many events to reminisce about, people to see, and stories to be told, that a word could not be got in edge wise. As I wandered about, all you could hear were echoes of laughter, people were hugging each other as long lost friends seemed to be suspended in the minutes of time. As each walked through the door that night, it was like a great time machine ushered them each back to their time on the team. It was as if not a day had passed since 1959, 69,79… The times, places and bonds of the past momentarily converted leaving them in present time, as if it was yesterday.
No one seemed to see the faces we see in the mirror every day, they were seeing, laughing and talking with the young, strong broad shoulder brother that they worked, jumped and lived with traversing across the country so many decades ago.
Saturday morning many gathered to share breakfast, some rushed to the drop zone to make another jump, a few ventured off to the wind tunnel to test their skills of indoor skydiving, and a crowd strolled through the halls of headquarters and took photos in front of the infamous Golden Knight statue bearing their name.
Behind the scenes, people have been working for months to provide the facility, decorations, menu, video, souvenirs and a multitude of things to make the reunion pleasurable and a weekend to remember. So many people do not realize all the planning and effort involved in such a production or know that so many people have spent years to continue this long honored tradition. Bruce and Kay Wicks, Spider and Nancy Wrenn, Gary Winkler, Sonya, George Torrealba, Gina Hudson, Jeff Averett, Skip and Rona Cassel, Alumni, Noah Watts and the Graduates of the Assessment and Selection Program from 2010 and 2011, and the Media Relations staff, Michael Battise, Sean Capogreco, Jerry Morrison and me, were the underlying elves working their magic for the festivities for the special day.
Saturday evening Golden Knight Alumni Association President, COL Bruce Wicks (Ret) was Master of Ceremonies. Wicks welcomed the Alumni and everyone patriotically stood at attention as he announced the Posting of Colors by Color Officer Mark Shields and the Fayetteville Independent Light Infantry. They marched in step with magnificent uniforms donning kilts, bagpipes and a drummer and posted colors on each side of the staged platform and rhythmatically marched away into the dark.
COL Wicks, drew attention to the forgotten Soldiers spotlighted table ,which solemnly had a draped black veil suspended overhead. He explained in detail what each item on the table represented, made a toast to our fallen comrades and everyone stood in a moment of silence in memory of these great people who have given their lives for our freedom.
During the evening and throughout the dinner several historical videos produced by Michael Battise, team videographer played on the two screens for all to enjoy. Following the meal COL Wicks announced the surprise guest and speaker for the evening and played a introductory video about the guest’s sensational life story.
You could hear a pin drop when COL Joe Kittinger (Ret) began telling his story. Kittinger was in United States Air Force and former Command Pilot known for his famous participation in a 102,800 feet (31,300 m) world record-setting leap in Project Manhigh and Project Excelsior. He holds the records for having the highest, fastest and longest skydive, from a height greater than 31 km, and as being the first man to make a solo crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in a gas balloon. Kittinger set an interim balloon altitude record of 96,760 feet (29,490 m) in Manhigh I, for which he was awarded his first Distinguished Flying Cross. Kittinger served as a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, and was shot down and spent 11 months in the ” Hanoi Hilton,” a North Vietnamese prison.
Following his presentation he had a cheering crowd and standing ovation. Then COL Wicks presented him with a exquisite matted photograph from the Golden Knight Alumni Association and everyone reached to shake his hand as he proceeded back to his seat amidst the audience.
Gina Duffy, widow of former CSM/1st Sergeant Ray Duffy greeted all of the former wives and family members of the team and the Master of Ceremonies introduced Ken Kassens as Vice/Vice-President, New Board members and recognized special people who have supported the team over the years.
Charlie Hall GKAA Vice President, introduced the former Commanders, Sergeant Majors and First Sergeants who have served with the team for the past fifty-two years. The ceremony was then turned over to the current Commander, LTC Joe Martin who gave a in-depth report on the budget, cutbacks and the multiple achievements of the current team. LTC Martin and SGM Stephen Young introduced the new team members, announced and “knighted” the Honorary Golden Knights who were selected by current team members and the alumni. Rona Cassel wife of former knight Skippy Cassel was the 2010 Honorary. Gina Hudson, Jeff Averret, Rook Nelson, Tee Taylor, and Roxanne Smithson were honored as the 2011 Honorary Knights.
Each year current team member’s take a vote on who they feel has been most supportive of the team for the current year and their photograph is forever immortalized on the Golden Knight Theatre Wall of Fame. The 2011 Golden Knight Photographer of the year, SSG Dan Cook was selected for working closely with the Media Relations Department to capture and enhance the image of the team with photographs for the media kits and lithographs that are sent worldwide acquiring media impressions, add value and gifts of appreciation for assisting the team to complete the mission.
Miss Donna Dixon was selected for a second time as Civilian Golden Knight of the Year for her continual love and support to the team for over twenty-two years. LTC Martin said,” Donna is one reason for the success of the Golden Knights. She has and will always bleed black and gold.”
Aviation Commander, Major Craig Blackburn was selected as the Golden Knight Aviator of the Year for all of safe hours flying the team from coast to coast, and spectacular show demonstrations.LTC Martin said, “Craig not only has flew the team safely everywhere, he has joined the ranks of the team as an avid skydiver with over 200 jumps to his credit.”
And the excitement of the night was concluded when LTC Martin ended the ever waiting excitement of finding out the answer to the continual question of “ Who is it?,” when he made the traditional announcement of the 2011 Golden Knight of the Year, SFC Tom Bovee , Rigger Loft NCOIC, who just returned from a West Point tasking and NCOIC of the intense ten week Golden Knight Assessment and Selection Program.
Color Officer, Mark Shields called attention to the Fayetteville Independent Light Infantry who retired the colors, followed by farewell remarks by COL Wicks.
The real party had just begun as lines of people crowded around COL Kittinger for photos and autographs, Elvis entered the Grand Ball Room in his white jump suit with long side burns and dark sunglasses. The ladies rushed to his side for a hug and iphone shot while the Alumni, the ladies of GK4, and a dance floor full of people, two-stepped, line danced and slow danced the night away as some of the others socialized in Napoleons hospitality suite.
There are lots more fantastic photos coming in and I will add more to the page as they come in. Thank you are for attending this Heartfelt Reunion. It is very special to reunite, continue the legacy and share all the memories from the past and build new ones for the days to come. We are all part of such a unique family that only we can continue to nuture and nourish.I wish you all a Blessed wonderful Christmas and New Year full of health, love and happiness.