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Bill Kirby Jr.: A poignant farewell to an American soldier at the Airborne & Special Operations Museum

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For this retired four-star general, this day was a final command, and Gen. Dan K. McNeill would deliver as a proud American soldier.

“I am humbled to be here today,” McNeill would say on Sept. 9 as soldiers present and past came to the Airborne & Special Operation Museum to celebrate the life of retired Gen. James J. Lindsay, the first commander of U.S. Special Operations Command and leader of the  18th  Airborne Corps and the 82nd Airborne Division.

This was a fitting farewell and at a fitting place.

“He brought breath to the concept of this building,” Gen. McNeill, 77, would say of the ASOM, circa 2000, that stands in downtown Fayetteville in honor and celebration  of 80 years of testimony of Army Airborne and Special Operations history. “He is the heartbeat of this museum.”

Gen. James J. Lindsay was the personification of the American soldier, and retired soldiers one after another followed Gen. McNeill to tell everyone so under the 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper exhibit in the lobby of this museum so dear to Gen. Lindsay’s heart.

“I witnessed his integrity, his conviction, and I watched him take care of his paratroopers,” retired Col. Jack Donovan, who made 52 jumps with Gen. Lindsay, would say. “I witnessed the love and concern he had for his paratroopers. Gen. Lindsay and I remained close over the years. I’m going to miss him dearly, and I am never going to forget him and what he stood for and taught me.”

Retired Maj. Gen. Zannie Smith was an 18-year-old Army private when first coming to know Gen. Lindsay.

“I knew he was somebody I would like to emulate in my life,” he would say. “He was a good leader. He had a lot of compassion for us. He saw things in me.”

Gen. Lindsay saw in Maj. Gen. Smith what Maj. Gen. Smith as a young soldier couldn’t see in himself, and once Maj. Gen. Smith saw what Gen. Lindsay saw in him, “I wanted to live my life like Gen. Lindsay.”

They remained neighbors and friends after military retirement at their Woodlake homes in Moore County.

Retired Brig. Gen. Arnold Gordon-Bray would serve as an aide to Gen. Lindsay.

“He always was a soldier first,” Gordon-Bray said. “He prepared the nation to go to war against things. He gave of himself every day. America got every inch of who he was. He was a teacher and a mentor. I realized I wanted to be in his footsteps. The person I owe the most for becoming  a general is Gen. James J. Lindsay, who pinned me with my star.”

Brig. Gen. Bray would look out over the ASOM, where nearly 400 from military to civilian came for this poignant celebration and farewell.

“To the city of Fayetteville, there needs to be a statue of Gen. James Lindsay here,” he said. “We’re talking today about someone the world needs to know. This city owes him a statue.”

Lt. Gen. Christopher Donahue, commander of the 18th Airborne Corps on Fort Liberty, too, would cast his eyes over the ASOM.

“This is the house that Gen. Lindsay built,” he would say. “He loved soldiers. He loved paratroopers, and he loved people. He was an absolutely amazing man who brought things together. He thought of the Army Javelin,” Donavan would say about the FGM-148 anti-weapon warhead. “His idea saved a nation.”

Lt. Gen. Donahue would look into the faces of sons Steven Lindsay, Michael Lindsay, and Kevin Lindsay and daughter Barbara Jacon.

“I am incredibly honored to be here,” Lt. Gen. Donavan would say, “and talk about your dad.”

A soldier is born

Born the oldest of 10 children to the late Joseph and Mary Lindsay on a farm in Portage, Wisconsin, Gen. Lindsay was a student at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) in 1952, when he found himself short of money to continue college and was drafted into  the Army with thoughts of returning to the university with assistance of the GI Bill after his military service.

He liked military life.

He liked the discipline.

He was proud to be an American soldier and would apply for and be accepted into Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia. He would quickly find his way to Fort Liberty, then known as Fort Bragg, serve as a platoon leader and in other leadership assignments with the 82nd Airborne Division and the 77th Special Forces Group.

He was a soldier.

And he was born to lead soldiers.

 In a 38-year military career, you will find Gen. Lindsay’s boot prints from four tours of duty in Vietnam as one of its most decorated heroes to Fort Liberty, where he was up long before reveille (to revelry) and the bugle’s morning call. 

You could find him on those before-dawn runs by the Main Post Parade Field or later parachuting from the skies into Sicily Drop Zone or counseling a young soldier to be all he or she could be.

An old soldier’s dream

Gen. Lindsay would retire in 1990, but not his hopes to see the Airborne & Special Operations Museum – something he longed for dating back to 1982, when Gen. Lindsay envisioned the museum on then Fort Bragg.

“I was commanding the 82nd Airborne Division and went to a briefing at 18th Corps post headquarters, and one of the things they mentioned in the briefing was they had a plan to tear down all the World War II buildings,” Gen. Lindsay would tell Kevin Arata in a Nov. 10, 2018, interview when Gen. Lindsay was honored as this city’s first Hometown Hero. “These were buildings built in 1939 and 1941, hundreds of thousands of them across the states. And they were built to last 20 years and at that point they were 40 years old. So, as I was driving back to division headquarters, I got to thinking about, you know, that was an engineering miracle.

"So, I thought it'd be really great if we could preserve some of them, and I happened to be driving by the 82nd museum building, and I got to thinking if we could get four of those buildings – the chapel, a barracks, a mess hall and a supply room orderly -  and put them next to the museum.

“We could put artifacts in them,” Gen Lindsay would say. “So I started working on that and I worked for about two years trying to get federal money to preserve these buildings and failed. I left Bragg, went down to Fort Benning and then came back to command the 18th Airborne Corps, and I was still interested.”

The plan, Gen. Lindsay would say, was to build a museum on a 20-acre site on the military base near the Special Warfare Center, but a lack of federal funding would stifle the concept for the military base.

“I said, ‘Well, I'm going to go see the Chamber of Commerce to see if they can help me,’” Gen. Lindsay would say. “Fritz Healy was then chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, and I went to see him, and I made my pitch for money to preserve these buildings. … And he responded by saying, 'Why don't you guys get together and build a museum that the chamber and the whole community can get behind and support,' and I thought that’s probably a pretty good idea.”

The ASOM Foundation ensued, with Gen. Lindsay as chairman.

“I said I'd be honored to do that, and we had our first meeting in August of 1990 at the Officers Club at Fort Bragg,” Gen. Lindsay would say. “We were blessed by two gentlemen who are real ‘hometown heroes," — Fritz Healy, whose idea it was to start this whole thing downtown, “and John Koenig. They each donated $50,000, and that got us off the ground.”

Gen. Lindsay said then-U.S. Sen. Terry Sanford and state Sen. Tony Rand would seek out funding. Others including former mayors Charlie Holt, Bill Hurley and J.L. Dawkins would lend their support.

“In the fall of  Labor Day 1997, David Jameson, who then was head of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, contacted me and said he spoke for the city, the county and the chamber,” Gen Lindsay would say. “If we would move the museum site to downtown Fayetteville,  they would pick up the difference of probably $4 or $5 or $6 million, and we said, ‘We’ll move.’”

The retired general also recalled a chance meeting at a Special Forces Association dinner, when billionaire Ross Perot was in attendance and Gen. Lindsay shared with Perot what an ASOM would mean to the military base and this community.

“He was sitting at a different table than I was in this Special Forces function,” Gen. Lindsay would say, “and midway through the dinner, he got up and came over and said, ‘You got your $1 million for the museum. He funded the theater and the simulator.”

Retiring from his military career in 1990, Gen. Lindsay would become a senior mentor for the Army’s Battle Command Training Program, and for the ensuing 18 years helped train and mentor the Army’s corps, division and brigade leadership teams to include active-duty and National Guard units.

And he worked toward the Airborne & Special Operations Museum, that was christened on Aug. 16, 2000, in celebration of National Airborne Day.

It was a proud day for the retired general as the $22 million museum was christened.

“But I would tell you there are a bunch of ‘hometown heroes’ involved in making this museum a reality,” Gen. Lindsay would say in the Nov. 10, 2018, interview with Kevin Arata. “There are a bunch of ‘hometown heroes.’ I was one of several. … What's happened in Fayetteville since 1953 when I first came here is an absolute miracle, and it's frankly attributable to great leadership. You go back to Bill Hurley, Don Talbot and Tony Chavonne. That’s the  series of great leaders that have made this happen both in the county and city side. Just a super community.”

‘Can I have this dance?’

Retired Gen. James Joseph Lindsay died Aug. 6.

He was 90.

“Alzheimer’s,” a son would say, “is a terrible disease.”

A grandson would remember, too.

“Pop-Pop was a four-star general,” he would say. “But Pop-Pop was a four-star grandfather. He wasn’t the greatest man because of the four-star general he was but the greatest because of the great four-star grandfather he was.”

A daughter would remind a mother of a father’s love.

“Mom,” Barbara Jacon would say, “you were the only woman Dad ever loved.”

Then Lt. James Lindsay would meet Gerry Parker Lindsay, the young Fairmont native who worked as a bookkeeper on Pope Air Force Base, at the Fort Bragg Officers Club.

“Can I have this dance?” the young lieutenant would ask.

Every anniversary card for the ensuing 68 years would carry the familiar refrain: “Can I have this dance?”

“There is no argument,” Gen. McNeill later would say. “Without Gerry Lindsay, there could not have been a Gen. Jim Lindsay.”

Epilogue

A memorial ceremony was held Sept. 9 at the Main Post Chapel on Fort Liberty, with interment at the Fort Liberty Main Post Cemetery prior to the celebration of life at Gen. Lindsay’s beloved Airborne & Special Operations Museum.

“Jim Lindsay’s strength of character and convictions continued into his retirement service and, without doubt, he breathed life into the Airborne & Special Operations Museum,” says Gen. McNeill, himself a four-star general who commanded the 82nd Airborne Division, the 18th Airborne Corps, U.S. Army Forces Command, the Coalition Forces, Afghanistan from 2002 to 2003 and the U.S. Army Forces Command (FORSCOM) from 2004 to 2007. “There is a heartbeat in the halls of the ASOM, and it is Jim Lindsay’s heartbeat.”

Now, Gen. McNeill would carry out an American soldier’s final assignment. 

“He said, ‘I want you to speak at my funeral,’” retired Gen. McNeill would say about retired Gen James J. Lindsay. “So, general, I come before you.”

Gen. McNeill would offer a final salute.

“I have completed my task,” McNeill would say. “Rest in peace, Gen. Lindsay.”

Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at billkirby49@gmail.com or 910-624-1961.

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Fayetteville, military, Airborne & Special Operations Museum, Gen. James J. Lindsay, Gen. Dan K. McNeill

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