News: Project underway to bring battlefield soil to St. Augustine parade field
Story by Master Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa
ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – Although it’s tough to find a spot of ground in the nation’s oldest city that isn’t “of historical significance,” a field of grass in front of the Florida National Guard headquarters might soon be just a bit “more” historic.
A project is underway to consecrate the parade field in front of the historic St. Francis Barracks with soil from battlefields around the world where the Florida National Guard has fought. The initiative – spearheaded by senior Army advisor Col. David Rodgers and the Florida Department of Military Affairs historian’s office – seeks to sprinkle soil samples from nine wars and 15 locations across the globe onto the St. Augustine field on Marine Street.
The concept isn’t new; Rodgers got the idea in 2009 after reading an article about a similar project for soldier Field at Fort Benning, Ga., where the ground was infused with “sacred soil” from major battlefields in U.S. Army infantry history. Inspired by the ceremony, Rodgers consulted with DMA Historian Gregory Moore about the possibility of doing the same thing for the unnamed parade field facing the Florida National Guard headquarters.
The 24,000-square-foot parade field and the larger military post of St. Augustine along the west bank of the Matanzas River have been home to religious and military groups since 1588. The manicured and picturesque parade field is used today for retreat ceremonies, but remains without an official title despite its prominence as a Florida National Guard site.
“I knew that the parade field wasn’t dedicated, so I began researching Florida National Guard history and what major battles our Guardsmen have fought,” Rodgers explained.
The list he and Moore compiled began with the 1835 Battle of the Withlacoochee in Central Florida (Second Seminole Indian War) and concluded with Operation Iraqi Freedom. The battles spanned the 168 years in between including the Mexican-American War, the U.S. Civil War, World War I and II, the Korean War, Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
While compiling the list was easy, the task of collecting soil samples from three states and twelve foreign countries proved more difficult; federal regulations prohibit importation of foreign soil into the U.S. without proper safeguards to ensure against destructive organisms. When the soil is brought into the U.S., it must be quarantined, screened and treated at an authorized facility.
“I researched in detail the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s procedures for receiving the soil from a foreign country,” Rodgers said. “The permitting was available online, however I had to physically report to their regional office in Lake City, Fla., for final approval.”
The next step was to find points of contact in each of the foreign countries. Rodgers contacted embassies or deployed units to collect the samples, and asked them to send the samples back for processing with the USDA.
“Since all of the contacts worked either at an embassy or at a deployed unit location, I was able to reduce shipping costs by initially using the U.S. Postal Service,” Rodgers said. “For Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Qatar, I asked commanders from Florida National Guard units to assist.”
In December 2011 the first soil packet arrived from Oman, and by the end of May they’d received soil samples from every international battlefield except for Papua New Guinea and Indonesia where Florida Guard soldiers fought during World War II. According to Rodgers some of the samples were misplaced or never even made it to the USDA, so they had to be reshipped.
“The soils from Iraq and Kuwait were collected by the 1-111th Aviation Regiment,” he said. “It was an ideal unit to provide both soil samples since it initially deployed to Iraq and then was moved to Kuwait during the Operation New Dawn. The soil was sent three times to the USDA in Miami before they received it.”
Now with most of the soil samples in hand – neatly labeled and in clear, plastic bags at the Florida National Guard headquarters – the next step is to collect the last few domestic packets of dirt from battlefields in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Florida, and select a name for the field.
“We’ve consulted with Adjutant General of Florida Maj. Gen. Titshaw regarding his guidance, and he will make a decision about the name later,” Rodgers said. “This is exciting since it synchs so well with his leadership philosophy of embracing our rich military history.”
The actual naming of the field will take into consideration the Florida National Guard's long tradition of service to State and Nation dating back to the 16th Century.
According to historian Moore, the entire project really shows the breadth of National Guard history and deployments since the early 1800s.
“The site of a battle where American service members have fought and shed blood often takes on the aura of being sacred or uniquely significant to our military heritage,” Moore, himself a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, said. “Bringing a portion of that sand or soil back to St. Augustine and spreading it on the parade field – a field where we regularly honor our soldiers and airmen – brings a unique sense of the spirit associated with those battles