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Hundreds celebrate ‘Rock’ Merritt at Airborne & Special Operations Museum

Rock Merritt is led to the ceremony by Lou Gutierrez

Polished Orator
Rock delivers a speech at the ceremony

Happy Conspirator
Lou Gutierrez spearheaded this event to honor a best friend

Association Associates
Current VP, CSM Steve noon, Trustee Rock Merritt and Past President, Lou Gutierrez

On Display
Rock's jump boots and uniform jacket with the Order of St. Maurice Doughboy Award, Primicerius level*

Medal Array
includes Combat Infantryman badge, Silver Star, Legion of Merit, French Legion of Honor, Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation with three Oak Leaf Clusters, Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign Medal, WWII Victory Medal, WWII Occupation Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, U.S. Vietnam Service Medal, D-Day Commemorative Medal, Battle of The bulge Commemorative Medal,
Armed Forces Retired Commemorative Medal, Master Parachutist Bade with two combat jump stars and Bronze Service Arrowhead and the French Fourragére.

awards are made only to those who served the Infantry community with distinction; must have demonstrated a significant contribution in support of the Infantry; and must represent the highest standards of integrity, moral character, professional competence, and dedication to duty.

The Primicerius (Highest Level) is  for those who have made a significant and lasting contribution to the entire Infantry with a special version of the award going to the Infantry Doughboy Award winners each year.

Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Kenneth “Rock” Merritt had been duped.
   Merritt, a World War II veteran who spent 35 years in the Army and remains active in speaking to modern day paratroopers, believed he was at the Airborne & Special Operations Museum in downtown Fayetteville to speak with a small group of soldiers about the founding father of the U.S. Army Airborne, Maj. Gen. William C. Lee.
   But instead of Lee, Merritt, 94, was the focus of the day as he was led outside the museum into a waiting crowd of hundreds of 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers, veterans and friends.
   There, he was celebrated as an icon, hero and as living history as officials unveiled a paver stone in his honor that was placed outside the museum.
   “Rock. You draw a hell of a crowd,” said Tommy Bolton, the civilian aid to the Secretary of the Army for North Carolina.
   With generals and numerous command sergeant majors in attendance, alongside family and friends, Bolton praised Merritt not only for what he has accomplished, but for what he represents. “It’s that place in history when the world was at war and the only thing that stood between freedom and the Nazis were guys like Rock,” he said. “They faced the severity of combat, moved back one row, one causeway, one river, one town at a time.”

   Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Steve England, who like Merritt previously served as the senior noncommissioned officer for the 18th Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg, said Merritt has long been a role model and mentor for soldiers at the nation’s largest military installation.
   England said Merritt is an American hero, patriot and an “exceptional example of the greatest generation.”
   Merritt, a native of Oklahoma, enlisted in the Army in October 1942. He deployed to World War II with the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment and fought during the D-Day invasion, Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge, earning a Silver Star in France for single-handedly preventing a German ambush by destroying a machine gun nest.
   Speaking to the Observer in 2014, Merritt described the first of two combat jumps. He and more than 30 other paratroopers leapt from a C-47 into the French countryside in the early hours of D-Day.
   The jump itself was cold and windy, Merritt said. He was weighed down by about 100 pounds of equipment before landing in the middle of a field surrounded on all sides by massive hedgerows.
   “I look up and I see a C-47 on fire coming right at me,” Merritt recalled. “It came as close as 50 feet overhead.”
   Alone, the paratrooper gathered ammunition for his machine gun and set out into France, hesitantly testing each hedgerow for German fighters while also contending with the occasional snap of a bullet intended for him.
   Each hedgerow was 5 to 6 feet high, Merritt said, and sat on a 3-foot mound of dirt — the perfect hiding place to ambush disoriented paratroopers trying to regroup.
   “I prayed to God to live to daylight,” said Merritt, nearly 70 years after the first of two combat jumps he made during World War II. “I wanted to see the (expletive) who wanted to kill me.”
   Nearly 76 years after he first reported to the 508th, Merritt walked out of the museum on Friday to find himself facing a crowd that included hundreds of paratroopers from the 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment -- now part of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team.
   He said the reception was something he would never forget.
   “This is amazing,” Merritt said after posing for numerous photographs, shaking countless hands and signing a few autographs for soldiers.
   Officials with the battalion said Merritt often makes the time to visit with today’s soldiers, many of whom look up to him.
   Merritt said he also admires them. “Our Armed Forces today are led by the best trained, best equipped, best educated officers, noncommissioned officers and soldiers that the Army has ever had,” he said.
   Later this year, Merritt will have another honor coming his way.
   He will be part of the inaugural class of the 82nd Airborne Division’s All American Hall of Fame.

Published on: Apr 20, 2018 --- Military editor Drew Brooks can be reached at dbrooks@fayobserver.com or 486-3567.

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