By Kristine Favreau
Killeen Daily Herald
Normally, a 65th birthday marks retirement age but, for Fort Hood, today's celebration comes during one of the busiest times since the post was established.
From its beginning as a small Army training camp on Sept. 18, 1942, Fort Hood has grown to become the largest active-duty armored post in the United States. It is the only post capable of supporting two full armored divisions.
Known as "The Great Place," the post's population is estimated at 71,000, of which almost 42,000 are soldiers. Currently, more than 18,000 Fort Hood soldiers are deployed to Iraq.
Through the years, service members and their families have been strongly supported by the post's neighboring communities of Killeen and Copperas Cove. Both have played a significant role in the development of the post.
"I remember my grandfather talking about moving off the land for Fort Hood," said Copperas Cove resident Les Ledger, whose family has been in the area since 1854. "Although it was a sad time, he always said 'If giving up our land saves one American boy's life, then it is worth it.'"
The younger Ledger added that Fort Hood has always been a good neighbor to Copperas Cove, with soldiers from the post going so far as to bring help when a Ledger family home was in danger of catching fire.
"We didn't have much of a fire department at the time and, when our yard caught fire, Robert Gray sent a huge truck to help us fight the fire," Ledger said.
Today, Robert Gray Army Airfield is located at West Fort Hood and is named for Captain Robert M. Gray, a member of the United States Army Air Corps and a Killeen native. Gray sent assistance to the Ledger family.
"Fort Hood has brought many wonderful people here, people who have become citizens of Copperas Cove and Killeen. If not for the base," Ledger said, "I would never have met my bride, Linda. Her father was transferred here from Fort Polk, La. Nor would my sister Marky have met her husband," Ledger said.
"Some people who lost their land really had a hard time with it," he added, "but our family has always been treated well by the military, and I only remember great events, and great people."
The first time Copperas Cove resident Ivor McKay saw what is now Fort Hood, it was nothing more than a few tents surrounded by rolling hills. Now, more than 60 years later, McKay is a retired lieutenant colonel who continues to support the post he watched grow up.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, McKay joined the United States Army as a private in 1939. Stationed at Camp Brownwood, McKay and his fellow soldiers traveled to the new training facility near Killeen with a platoon of tank trucks, expecting to be in the area for just one day.
"We drove down Tank Destroyer Boulevard, which used to be a main highway," McKay said. "There was nothing here but a bunch of tents and we ended up getting orders to stay."
The following day, McKay said, the flag was raised and they called the area Camp Hood. "When we drove through Copperas Cove that first time, it was nothing more than cotton gins and a railroad station," he said.
Throughout his military career, which spanned more than 29 years, McKay was stationed at Fort Hood several times. "I've watched Fort Hood grow from a tent camp to what it is today. That makes it different, makes it special," he said.
Attached to the 1st Cavalry Division while serving in Korea, McKay continues to support the unit.
"I go to every 1st Cavalry ceremony that I can," he said. "If one of the units asks me, I'll go out there and talk to the troops."
When 1st Cavalry troops began returning home from the first Iraq deployment, McKay was one of the faces nearly every soldier saw when they stepped off the bus.
"I'm very proud of the fact that out of all the homecomings from Iraq, I only missed three ceremonies," McKay said. "And those three were flights that came in at around 2 a.m." McKay retired from active duty in 1968 but still considers himself a soldier.
"It gets in your blood and there's nothing you can do to change it," McKay said. "It's who I am."
Ledger and McKay are part of the post's history, which is part of the Army's history.
According to globalsecurity.com, Fort Hood was named after John Bell Hood. A famous Confederate Army general during the Civil War, Hood gained recognition as the commander of the Texas Brigade. In 1861, Hood resigned his commission in the Union Army to join the Confederate Army, where he started out as a first lieutenant in the cavalry. He made rapid progress and, in May of 1862, he was made a brigadier general.
Hood and his men rewrote the song "Yellow Rose of Texas" and part of the new words were "The gallant Hood of Texas played hell in Tennessee."
As a result of wounds received in the battle of Chickamauga, Hood lost his right leg. Undaunted, he strapped himself into his horse's saddle and continued leading his troops. Confederate Army Gen. Robert E. Lee relieved Hood of his command after Hood refused to turn over ambulances his soldiers captured during the second battle at Manassas, Va., which was known as Bull Run by the Union Army.
Hood wanted to keep the ambulances for his soldiers, who demonstrated their displeasure over the decision to relieve Hood. Lee wound up reinstating Hood. However, Lee stipulated that Hood had to apologize. Hood never did. After the war was over, John Hood moved to New Orleans.
"It's an honor to be associated with his legacy as he holds a distinctive position as an important figure in American military history," said O.C. Hood, great-great nephew of the late John Bell Hood.
"Having never been to the base, I've not had the opportunity of experiencing that tribute to his memory "on the ground," so to speak, but I've heard from someone who has, that the respect shown him at Fort Hood is genuine.
"That alone is a comfort to me, knowing that his memory will not only be perpetuated, but honored as well. I've always admired how the United States military honors its soldier's legacies," O.C. Hood said.
Contact Kristine Favreau at email@example.com or call (254) 547-3535