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Big Red One stands united; Historic Army division holds Buffalo reunion that spans generations

They are from different eras, different backgrounds and different wars. And yet they are all one - The Big Red One, officially known as the Army's 1st Infantry Division.

There's 88-year-old George Hanggi, who fought the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge and in the Hurtgam Forest during World War II.

Then there's the cheerful 26-year-old Jay Fain, who's hard to miss with his prosthetic limb that replaced the right leg he lost four years ago to an improvised explosive device in Baghdad.

And so many Vietnam War veterans, the largest bloc of the 750 veterans and their guests attending the 93rd annual reunion of the Society of the First Infantry Division this week in Buffalo.

This band of brothers -- and some sisters -- is in Buffalo to share war stories, provide support for each other and have some fun taking in the sights of the region.

"It's such an honor to be here, to help keep the 1st Infantry Division's tradition alive, to be with veterans and wounded warriors," said 25-year-old Capt. Aston Armstrong, who is assigned to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.

She and two sergeants from the same installation, Zheng Zou and Rafael Lozano, are part of a contingent of some 50 active duty members of the 1st Infantry Division detailed to the convention to share their current-day military experiences with the oldtimers.

The Big Red One, the Army's oldest and most storied infantry division, was formed in 1917 to take on the Germans in World War I.

The pride that runs through its members is palpable.

With the exception of the Korean War, the 1st Infantry Division has served in every major military engagement since its start under Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing.

"In World War I, we were the first Army division to engage the Germans at Cantigny, France. In World War II, our division made three amphibious landings in northern Africa, Sicily and Normandy," said Thomas G. Rhame, a retired lieutenant general who himself is a walking piece of history.

Rhame served as commanding general of the 1st Infantry Division in the Persian Gulf War two decades ago when his soldiers charged into the Iraq desert and decimated Saddam Hussein's forces.

But rather than brag about his own accomplishments, Rhame, the society's president, would much rather discuss the history of the Big Red One, which missed out on the Korean War because it was part of the army of occupation in Germany following World War II.

"Since then we've served in Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan," he says with more than a little pride.

Rhame, also a Vietnam War veteran, will be the first to tell that it is the soldiers who make the division's motto a living reality: "No Mission Too Difficult. No Sacrifice Too Great. Duty First."

The fierce camaraderie, crossing over generations and wars, strongly figures into the mix.

On Thursday morning as Hanggi, of Ponca City, Okla., spryly made his way to the lobby at the downtown Adam's Mark Hotel, the reunion's home base, the octogenarian suddenly halted as a younger man from the Vietnam War good naturedly interrogated him.

"Where the hell's your belt buckle?"

For a second Hanggi seemed a bit puzzled, but then 63-year-old Alan Benoit, who like Hanggi uses a hearing aid, explained himself. "I gave it to you last year. The 1st Infantry Division belt buckle."

Hanggi's face filled with recognition as he said, "I haven't put it on yet."

Buddy Wallace joined in the mini-reunion. A recently retired command sergeant major from the 1st Infantry Division's headquarters in Fort Riley, Kan., he has taken a job as the society's executive director.

And he too has his own war stories, having served twice in Iraq, once in Afghanistan and once in Pakistan.

At 49 years old, he says, other society members are quick to tell him "Oh, you're a baby."

But he would rather talk about the real heroes of the 1st Infantry Division and pulls out his cell phone to dial up two wounded warriors from Iraq, who were up in their hotel room getting ready for the day.

Fain and Omar Avila soon arrived, Fain dressed in summer shorts, his artificial right leg in view.

"Everybody has their own story, and we're tied in together no matter what age, what era or what war we served in," Fain says of the common thread that links them all.

Avila, with remnants of arms that were charred by a 200-pound improvised explosive device on May 14, 2007, in Baghdad, does not hesitate to shake hands.

Avila says because his wounds are so noticeable, they attract attention here at the reunion and elsewhere.

"It's great icebreaker," the 25-year-old says. "Everybody wants to know my story. I've gotten so much respect since I've come here, and I've only been here a day."

The war stories, the compassion, the commiseration are boundless as the need to reconnect takes place over and over.

Take John B. Long, an 84-year-old retired Town of Tonawanda chiropractor. He wants to meet up with other members of the 18th Regiment, 2nd Battalion, from just after World War II.

Maybe some of them, like him, will recall that holiday dinner they shared beside a troop train in Germany on Christmas Eve 1945.

Lockport resident Francis "Pat" Sullivan, a 64-year-old Vietnam veteran from Charlie Company, 16th Regiment, 1st Battalion, says the reconnections will be strongest when the different units meet at night in their command posts in hotel conference rooms.

"It's emotional because when we were first together in 1969 and 1970, we were young kids. Now we're the old folks," Sullivan said. "Some of the members have had children serving in the different conflicts since then. We'll discuss where we went after the rice paddies."

And then there's Bobby Strunk from Kentucky, who served as a military police officer during the post-war occupation of Germany. He's hard to miss in front of the hotel, sitting atop a refurbished World War II motorcycle similar to the one he rode in Germany from 1948 to 1952.

"I'm looking at 80 in the face real good," he says of his age. "So, I go about 35 miles an hour on the bike."

Active duty Major Aaron Welch of Fort Riley, who has served twice in Iraq and will go to Afghanistan next year, says it is nothing short of inspiring to be among so many of the Big Red One's veterans.

"I can reconnect with my lineage. It amazes me how much we have in common," says the 36-year-old officer. "We share this commonality."

email: lmichel@buffnews.com