A Photo Too Far

I was very new to the 82nd Airborne Division in 1977 when the movie A Bridge Too Far came out. Because I was the runner up Division Trooper of the Month and 2/505 Trooper of The Month the previous month, I received the Division Trooper Award and two tickets to the Fayetteville premier of the movie. My Battalion Command Sergeant Major told me to be there, take my wife (1st wife, not Kady), and wear my Greens.

I was proud to do so. This movie was the story of one of the more famous missions of WWII in which the 82nd played a huge part. The premier was all the buzz in Fayetteville, with announcements on the radio, TV, and in the newspaper, back when people read those. The first showing was “Invitation Only,” and I had TWO Tickets. All the big-wigs in town and at Bragg were invited, but the special guests were the Paratroopers who jumped into Nijmegen and Eindhoven Holland. I was told we would get to meet these guys, so I was pretty excited.

When we arrived, we were scooped up by a young Captain from Division Public Affairs (PAO), and ushered (read: herded) through the lobby, through the crowd of important people socializing in the theater lobby, and taken directly to our seats, way down in front and on the left side, with all the other young privates—No Popcorn, No Drinks.

About ten minutes before the movie was scheduled to start, Mister PAO came back down front, pointed at me and two other troopers and said, “You, You, and You...Come with me.” When the wife stood to go with me, he said, “Just the soldiers, Please.”

The two other guys and I were ushered outside, and positioned behind a group of men, one of them CSM Rock Merritt, for a photo opportunity. Everyone knew who Rock was. He was our Corps Sergeant Major at the time and a living Paratrooper Legend. The photographer took a couple of snaps and then Mister PAO wrote down our names and ushered us back to our seats.

The movie was great. Afterwards, the important people went to an after party. The privates were all thanked very much for coming and told to watch the paper the next day. Cool, we're going to be in the paper.

And that was it. Unlike we had all been promised, there was no face time with our heroes, no chance to talk to generals or sergeants major. We were just there, almost In the Way. Ah Well. I still got to see the movie for free, learned a lot, had a good story to tell the boys when I got back to Charlie Company.

However, my story was changed for me as soon as the paper came out. I saw the problem right off. The photo in the paper showed a group of WWII Vets all standing in front of the A Bridge Too Far marquee. Behind them was a young trooper, me, center most in the photograph. The other young privates had been cropped out, or, as I remember the placement, standing behind the Vets.

Worst of all, I had a goofy look on my face that made me look like a 12-year-old-girl at a Donny Osmond Concert AND the caption read, “...Rock Merritt (in Uniform) With Some Other Invasion Vets”.

I knew I was in for a lot of trouble. Paratroopers are relentless when they find something to use against you....even if it is all in good fun.

It began at PT the next morning. My best buddy Steve “Fis-hugh” Fiscus saw me coming around the corner from Lindsey Field and yelled, “Neeeeeeely! You Cheeser!” There were other, less kind comments and a great deal of laughter, and any attempt on my part to explain what happened only made the jeering and laughter worse. I was called a brown-noser, a poser, a hero, and a bunch of other terms that should not be mentioned here.

Happily, all the abuse stopped when 1SG Gainey came out of the Orderly Room and ordered us all to Fall-In.

After receiving the report, he began the day by saying, “I have a treat for you men today. We have in our midst, a hero (I hung my head) of the battle of Market Garden, who will address you and tell you what it was really like at Nijmegen. PFC Neely, if you'll come forward...”