Paratroopers, veterans and members of the Fort Bragg and Fayetteville community gathered April 20 to honor a living airborne legend.
Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Kenneth “Rock” Merritt (Ret.), a distinguished alumni of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division was honored with a paver stone at the Airborne and Special Operations Museum in downtown Fayetteville.
“Rock, you draw a hell of a crowd,” said Tommy Bolton, civilian aid to the secretary of the Army for North Carolina, during his opening remarks. “This is indeed special. Not just for Command Sgt. Maj. Merritt and his amily, but for all he represents.”
“That means 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 who stepped forward, took the oath, withstood the training and dedicated themselves to a higher cause and the meaning of America,” Bolton said.
Merritt was a member of the 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment when he participated in the combat jumps into Normandy during Operation Overlord and into the Netherlands during Operation Market Garden. He was personally awarded the Silver Star by Gen. Matthew Ridgway for knocking out a Nazi machine gun nest during Operation Overlord.
“Command Sgt. Maj. Merritt is an exceptional example of the ‘Greatest Generation’ and is still serving our Army today,” said Command Sgt. Maj. (Ret.) Steve England. “Rock is a role model and mentor to the officers, noncommissioned officers and young paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division and the XVIII Airborne Corps and, of course, his beloved 508th.”
In October 1942, Merritt saw a colorful poster while waiting to talk to a Marine recruiting sergeant. The poster depicted a paratrooper descending to the ground with the challenge, “Are you man enough to fill these boots?” on it — that was the beginning of his 35-year long career in the Army, 31 years of which were spent on jump status. Merritt would serve twice as command sergeant major of the XVIII Airborne Corps and is an inaugural member of the 82nd Airborne Division’s Hall of Fame.
“Let me say — without any reservations — this is the greatest honor that I have ever received. In the confusion in the world going on today, we have so much to be proud and thankful for. Number one, 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,” said Merritt. “Number two, we live in the best country in the world, the United States of America. Last, but certainly not least, we’ve been able to have two 240-some-odd years with our freedom all due to soldiers like you standing here today.”
Merrit occasionally visits the 1-508th PIR and 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division headquarters on Fort Bragg to speak with paratroopers and give them perspective on the foundations of the Army Airborne community.
“Command Sgt. Maj. Merritt is a national treasure and a living legend. When he visits the Panther Brigade on Fort Bragg, paratroopers have the opportunity to hear first-hand accounts of the 82nd’s baptism by fire in the skies and on the ground during World War II,” said. Col. Gregory Beaudoin, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division.
“The honor he received today at the ASOM ensures generations of paratroopers to come will know about the valor and heritage of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment,” Beaudoin said.