The immense ballroom at the Washington Hilton had a special haze as beams of light cut through the air and crisscrossed the room, lighting up tables and soldiers dressed in their military finest.
All the tables were decked out with formal place settings, stemware, neatly folded linen napkins, and a military coin in a folded card that commemorated the Army’s 237th birthday and the 2012 Army Birthday Ball June 16, capping off a week of celebration across the force.
This was a spectacular evening in the nation’s capital – an event where the Army celebrates both its heritage and the soldiers who are its most important asset.
"When they do stuff like this, they tend to do it big," said Sgt. Patrick M. Wise, a National Guard soldier who attended the ball with his wife, Kristinn.
Wise works as a human resources specialist at Fort Belvoir, Va. He said it’s the first time he’s attended the Army Ball, and he has always wanted to experience it at least once.
"We’ve never had the opportunity to go to a ball like this where I was stationed previously," he said. "Also, to preserve tradition, we come together to honor the Army, to honor how long it’s been standing, and where we’ve come from."
Kristinn had a different take. With a new daughter in the family, she said she was glad to get some time away, to be alone with her soldier-husband.
"I love him and I support him," she said.
Staff Sgt. William Matthews, of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 53rd Infantry Brigade, said, "This definitely is the classiest thing I’ve ever attended."
Matthews, who attended the event with his girlfriend, Julia, is currently in a Warrior Transition Unit in Orlando, Fla. He’ll face a medical evaluation board soon, and understands his continued service in the Army will be in its hands.
But, as an Army ordnance sergeant, he said he wants to stay in the Army and continue serving.
Matthews said he joined the Army originally to be closer to its history, which now spans 237 years.
"I wanted to do something useful with my life," he said. "And I’ve always been interested in Army history, and I figured the best way to appreciate it is to be a part of it."
This year, there were several special guests to render the traditional military toasts.
Col. Angelo Perri, a Korean War and Vietnam War veteran, and the recipient of two Combat Infantryman Badges toasted the nation.
Sgt. 1st Class Ronald E. Rosser, a retired Korean War veteran and a Medal of Honor recipient for conspicuous gallantry, toasted the commander-in-chief.
Master Sgt. Ed O’Neil, a wounded warrior, and member of the World Class Athlete Program (WCAP), rendered a toast to the Army.
The toast to soldiers and their families was rendered by Sgt. Justin Olsen, who has earned an Olympic gold medal for bobsledding, and is also a member of the Army’s WCAP.
Spc. Dennis Bowsher, also from WCAP, who will compete and represent the Army and the United States at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, competing in the modern pentathlon, rendered a toast to guests of the ball.
Finally, with a toast to fallen comrades – a toast always rendered with water, to recognize the suffering of service members who have been held in captivity – was given by Col. Gregory D. Gadson.
Gadson, then director of the U.S. Army Wounded Warrior Program, is now the commander of Fort Belvoir, Va. A wounded warrior, Gadson rendered the toast from his wheelchair.
Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III greeted those at the ball and thanked them for their service.
"Thank you for being here tonight and thanks again for your service and sacrifice for the nation," Chandler said.
Adding, "Each of you is a vital part of our Army team, whether you are a soldier, a Department of the Army civilian, or a family member. You know what it means to be a soldier in the U.S. Army."
Chandler spoke about the Army’s history, and presented a challenge to those in the audience.
He said he’d worked into his speech the mottos or nicknames of the Army’s 10 active duty divisions, and challenged soldiers to cheer when they heard the motto or nickname of their own division.
He said, "Two-hundred-thirty-seven years ago, our nation’s leaders established the Continental Army. Ever since that day, our soldiers have been ‘Second to None," emphasizing the last three words – the motto of the 2nd Infantry Division.
Chandler raised cheers from soldiers each time as he dropped the nicknames and mottos from each of the remaining divisions into his speech.
Included in those: "Old Ironsides," from the 1st Armored Division; "The First Team," from the 1st Cavalry Division; "Duty First," from the 1st Infantry Division; "Second to None," from the 2nd Infantry Division; "Rock of the Marne," from the 3rd Infantry Division; "Steadfast and Loyal," from the 4th Infantry Division; "Climb to Glory," from the 10th Mountain Division; "Tropic Lightning," from the 25th Infantry Division, "All the Way," from the 82nd Airborne Division; and "Rendezvous With Destiny," from the 101st Airborne Division.
Staff Sgt. Brian Scott, 382nd Military Police Battalion, out of Massachusetts, attended the ball with his wife, Tanya.
Scott also serves in a civilian capacity as a Department of the Army civilian with the Natick Soldier Research Development Engineering Center. He works in the Combat Feeding Directorate, where MREs are developed.
"It’s really good to get together here with a lot of other members of the military," Scott said. "To hear where they’re from, where they’ve been, and hear everybody else’s story. Also, to see the leadership of the Army, and the community that is the U.S. Army."
Tanya said she finally got to see some of the people her soldier husband talks about from work.
Scott has been to Iraq once and said while there, he was beneficiary of some of what is developed at Natick, especially the Advanced Combat Helmet and the Improved Outer Tactical Vest.
"It’s been proven to save my life in a situation in combat. My convoy was under attack and we took an IED (improvised explosive device) to my vehicle, and I took shrapnel wounds. But mostly the ACH (Army Combat Helmet) is what saved my life, and the body armor," he said.
Entertainment was provided by the jazz ensemble Afro Blue, from Howard University, GrooveLine, and the World Class Rockers, that included former band members from Journey, Boston, Santana, Steppenwolf and Lynard Skynard, who performed songs like "Born to be Wild," and "Sweet Home Alabama."
Also performing were The Soldiers’ Chorus and The Volunteers, both from the U.S. Army Field Band.
The Army chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno said during the previous week he traveled throughout the United States.
"What I’ve learned of as I’ve traveled across the country is the deep respect that the men and women in this country have for the United States Army."
Adding, "That respect has been earned. As we stand here tonight and as we celebrate this great birthday we have, it’s really about celebrating the millions of soldiers, men and women, who have come before us. That’s what our Army is about. It’s about those who come before us, it’s about those who stand here today with us, and it’s about those who will come behind us in the future."
Odierno told the audience that while they were enjoying time here with their families and friends, 94,000 soldiers are deployed around the world. Of those, about 68,000 are in Afghanistan, with thousands more deployed to Bosnia, Kosovo, the Sinai, and other nations in the Middle East.
Additionally, Odierno said, there are 90,000 soldiers forward stationed to 150 countries around the globe.
"They represent us," Odierno said. "They represent our country – the moral and ethical values that they bring forward, they represent America, the greatest country in the world. That’s who we are and that’s what we do."
He also directed attention to the Army Flag and its 183 campaign streamers.
"That’s one-hundred-and-eighty-three campaigns that this Army has sweated for, has sacrificed, and bled for," Odierno said. "That’s who you are. That’s who we are. And that’s who we will continue to be as we move forward."
"All of you in this room tonight are part of yet another chapter of what is the most glorious book of history this world has ever seen," Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh said.
McHugh told those present that for 237 years, the Army has been called upon to do more than just protect America’s borders.
The history of the Army is 237 years of making a difference, 237 years of keeping not just America safe, but keeping this planet safe, McHugh said.
He added, "We are so blessed to be a part of that history, that tradition. You epitomize not only our nation’s ideals, but also our military values: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. And tonight, as always, it’s a pleasure to be – no, it’s an honor, to be with all of you here, so many members of that Army family."
McHugh, Odierno, and Chandler then cut the Army birthday cake, brought into the ball by the Army’s honor guard.
The Army Ball was hosted by Lt. Gen. Mary A. Legere, deputy chief of staff, G-2, and her staff. (Based on a story from ARNEWS.)