FORT POLK, La. (Fort Polk) - Hundreds of area residents lined Leesville’s Third Street to show their appreciation to the Soldiers of Fort Polk during a parade that recalled a similar event that occurred on the same street during World War II on March 10, 1943.
“This is a very important day for the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk,” Brig. Gen. Patrick D. Frank, commanding general, JRTC and Fort Polk, said. “The mayor and leaders from around the region came to me and said we would like to have an appreciation event for the 8,000 Soldiers that make up the Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk. We said that is an outstanding idea. Let’s recreate the 1943 parade that happened right down this street in front of us.”
More than 600 Soldiers participated in the parade that ran the length of Third Street and ended at the Veterans of Foreign Wars building where the Soldiers and their Families were treated to a meal. Signs of patriotism were abundant as American flags and red, white and blue beads were passed out to the crowd.
The Military Affairs Commission of the Vernon Parish Chamber of Commerce hosted the event that included a breakfast for local and Fort Polk leaders.
Frank was one of three guest speakers during a pre-parade press conference on the lawn of the Old Court House in downtown Leesville attended by local media. Leesville Mayor Rick Allen spoke first and said Vernon Parish had finally accomplished what it has wanted to do for years — blur the line between Fort Polk and Leesville.
“Now everyone understands that when it benefits Fort Polk, it benefits Louisiana, and when it hurts Fort Polk, it hurts Louisiana,” Allen said. I think we’re in a great position.”
Allen introduced Louisiana Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, the next speaker. Nungesser thanked the Soldiers and Families of Fort Polk for their sacrifice.
“I have a great appreciation for our military, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be today than here to celebrate the men and women coming home, that have given up their time away from their Families so we could be with ours in freedom,” Nungesser said.
The lieutenant governor pledged to “do everything in my power every day I’m lieutenant governor” to support Fort Polk’s Soldiers and Families.
“It’s an honor to be here to welcome home our Heroes,” he said. “There is nowhere else I’d rather be today than here.”
U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson, Louisiana’s Fourth Congressional District, was next to take the podium and said he had been looking forward to the parade for some time.
“It’s a great reminder of the valor and sacrifices of all our troops,” he said. “I want to thank Vernon Parish and the City of Leesville for all they do for our troops.
Johnson said the Vernon Parish community is known in Washington as a friendly, hospitable place for Soldiers and their Families.
“That means a lot to the Pentagon, the members of Congress and our Commander in Chief,” he said. “We like to say this is the best hometown in the Army, and this is the reason for it.”
Frank was the final speaker and spoke about how the day’s events continued a tradition begun on that March day in 1943. He said the bank building across Third Street from the Old Court House, is the same building in a historic portrait that sits in Fort Polk’s Headquarters building.
“I walk by it (portrait) each day,” he said. “We’re going to recreate that piece of history and tradition today, as the Soldiers march down this street as they did in the 1943 parade. That’s the connection between Leesville, Vernon Parish, and Fort Polk. Those Soldiers were in the midst of World War II, our Soldiers today, 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, are just coming back from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.”
But Frank said today’s parade was not just for those Soldiers returning home.
“There are 8,000 Soldiers assigned to Fort Polk,” he said. “They have a very important mission: We train the U.S. Army at Fort Polk. We ensure that those infantry brigade combat teams are well trained at the training center and that they go into theatre and combat the most prepared that the U.S. Army can get them.”
While that is important, Frank said the day’s festivities were about the connection between Fort Polk and the local community.
“Our Soldiers live in your neighborhoods, they go to your churches, their children go to your schools, they shop in your communities,” he said. “You welcome them with open arms.”
Frank said that although there is a fence surrounding Fort Polk, “We’d like to think that fence is not there, that it’s seamless, between Vernon Parish and Fort Polk, and that we’re all neighbors here together inside of Vernon Parish. Thank you for inviting us here today, we look forward to celebrating the relationship between Leesville, the surrounding communities, and Fort Polk.”
During a question and answer session following the press conference, Frank was asked what made an assignment at Fort Polk special.
“The other day I had a photograph that I showed to the staff and some of the commanders, that was taken on my iPhone up along the highway heading back into the fort,” he said. “It was a picture of all the flags that were along the median, that start out at Fort Polk and run all the way through the City of Leesville, and stretch out toward Anacoco and beyond. (Anacoco) Mayor (Keith) Lewing told me today how he was fighting with the Department of Transportation to keep those flags out for another weekend, because of what it means to the people around this area.”
It’s those values, Frank said, that make an assignment at Fort Polk special.
“We talk to our Soldiers every day about Army values,” he said. “It’s what makes us the best Army in the world. There’s an intersection in this area of Army values and Louisiana values. They are small-town values; that’s the way people are raised here, it’s what they believe in, and that is why you see those American flags along the roads.”
But that’s not all, Frank said.
“Having the privilege to lead Soldiers at Fort Polk is the greatest honor that I’ve ever had,” he said. “Fort Polk is the crown jewel of the Army. It’s a combat training center for the U.S. Army, and when you talk about all the other units that we have that have a globally deployable mission, there is no greater responsibility than to be able to serve with those Soldiers every day. It’s my honor to do that. Today is a great opportunity for us to give back to the local community.”