FORT LEE, Va. (June 23, 2016) -- The camaraderie and deep ties were unmistakable amongst the group of ordnance officers who gathered here recently even though most of them had not seen each other since the Vietnam War.

“We picked it up right where we left it,” said retired Maj. Ed Eley. “That’s the interesting thing. You go through something like this, you build friends for a lifetime.”

That “something like this” refers to the Ord. Officer Candidate School Class 66-1. Class members spent 23 weeks in 1966 training together in what some say was the first course designating graduates as ordnance officers. On June 13, a handful of students from the graduating class traveled here from all over the country to celebrate the achievement during the 50th Reunion and Memorial Dedication Ceremony that took place on the Ord. Campus.

“This was a tremendous dedication ceremony,” said class member Ray Dickerson of Payette, Idaho, struggling to restrain his emotions. “I can’t believe the work that went into this by my classmates.”

Heavy on the hearts of attendees were those who were deceased or who could not attend due to health reasons. The veterans who were present, now in their late 60s and early 70s, wept or teared up during the proceedings, reflecting the affinity and kinship they had for one another.

“We became very close,” said Eley, who was the event’s chief organizer. “You can’t live and work and go through the training we went through without bonding with each other.”

During their training, the classmates spent time at Fort Knox, Ky., for the combat portion and Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., for the technical phase. Sixty-seven students began the course, and 33 finished, earning their commissions on June 13, 1966. A good number of the graduates served in Vietnam.

Preparing the Soldiers for combat fell on the shoulders of then 1st Lt. Jerome Lewis, a former Marine who lived and breathed discipline and devotion, said Eley.

“He was our tactical officer,” he said of Lewis, an infantry officer. “He was tough.”

Lewis was present for the event, and was overheard saying “I wouldn’t miss this for the world.” He later recalled, “I was on my way to Vietnam, and they took me off orders to bring these young men along,” he said. “In that process, I learned and gained all of these friends.”

The 75-year-old Lewis, whose erectness and body posture belied the fact he has Parkinson’s Disease, was given the privilege of unveiling the memorial plague, a 2-by-2 foot bronze plate listing the names of graduates in raised letters. It rests on a 2-ton boulder that fronts a small oak tree planted a few weeks ago. The memorial is located near a running path adjacent to the historic ordnance vehicles parked at the foot of the bridge connecting the campus with main post.

Ordnance Corps and School acting commandant Col. James Groark, who assisted Lewis in the unveiling, was the guest speaker. He made it his first point of emphasis to talk about efforts and events at Department of Defense installations offering the sincerest thanks for those who served during the Vietnam War era.

“The events focused on two words that were not heard enough during the 1960s and 1970s,” he remarked. “So, from the heart of this ordnance officer and OCS, and on behalf of over 90,000 ordnance Soldiers today, welcome home, welcome home.”

Groark, who noted his career was shaped by Vietnam veterans, said Class 66-1’s achievement and the memorial that symbolizes it will serve to inspire the ordnance Soldiers of today.

“From this day on, young men and women – ordnance Soldiers like yourselves – will run and walk along this path and recognize those who came before them; recognize those whose shoulders they proudly stand upon. Once again, I want to thank you and your families for all you’ve done for this country.”

The idea for the reunion and dedication first surfaced three years ago, said Eley, and really began to take shape within the past year. When the particulars for the event were solidified, the plaque was ordered and a boulder was transported in from western Virginia. Members of the organizing committee along with Ord. School volunteers later laid a foundation to support it.

“We dug a hole, poured 39 bags of concrete in it, smoothed it out, covered it up,” said attendee and class member Gene Kent.

Why would a group of senior-citizen Soldiers go out of their way to construct a memorial, one might ask?

To impact today’s Soldier, said Kent, “to leave a lasting memory of us, and what we achieved.”

Editor’s note: Class 66-1 extended its thanks to the Ord. Corps command group, the 59th Ord. Brigade, American Legion Post 284 and a long list of individuals who supported the event.