Retired 1st Sgt. Toby Knight served in three infantry divisions during his 26 years in the Army - the 101st, the 4th and the 3rd.
It’s the latter that has had the greatest impact on Knight, who retired in October and now makes his home in San Antonio.
"My time in the 3rd was the most rewarding of my career," said Knight, now president of the Society of the 3rd Infantry Division, an 1,800-member, nonprofit veterans organization with roots that date back to 1918, when the 3rd was part of the Allied Expeditionary Force serving in Europe in World War I.
Knight, who deployed with the division in 2005 and spent a year in Iraq, said it was the 3rd ID’s past that made him want to be a part of its present and future, and convinced him to join the Society of the Third ID.
"What really sealed it for me was when I went to Europe and started to travel around in France," Knight said. "A large portion of eastern France was liberated by the 3rd ID twice, once in World War I and again in World War II, and if you’re traveling through that part of the country, you will be hard pressed to find a town that doesn’t have a plaque in its center stating it was liberated by the 3rd ID on such and such a date. In France, they all know who that division is."
Knight found that familiarity with the division’s history wasn’t necessarily the case stateside, especially among the division’s younger veterans.
"One of the challenges all veterans’ organizations face is that older veterans are dying away at a rapid pace, and younger veterans’ aren’t joining," said Knight, who noted he was elected national president of the group in part to help recruit younger veterans such as those who served in Desert Shield and Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom and the Global War on Terror that has gone on since 2001.
But Knight’s organization faces an additional challenge — the Army itself has changed.
"In World War II and during the draft era, you came in, you did your training and you were assigned to a division, and you stayed in that division until you went home," Knight said. "Some of our World War II veterans, the only army they know is the 3rd ID. With the all-volunteer, professional Army we have now, soldiers will come in and serve a number of years in different assignments with different units. They don’t necessarily have that one tie to one division the older veterans have. That’s one of the challenges we face now."
It’s why Knight said the Society is trying to "regenerate" its ties to the Fort Stewart-based division through such measures as funding scholarships and running the gift shop at the apparently soon to be reopened museum on post.
The Society is also sponsoring this year’s 3rd Infantry Division Soldier’s Ball, which is Nov. 18 at the Jekyll Island Convention Center and traditionally wraps up the division’s Marne Week.
Knight said the opportunity to host the ball came in September by invitation of the 3rd ID commander, Maj. Gen. James Rainey.
"He knew we were trying to connect to the division and the active duty soldiers and decided ‘let’s ask the Society if they can host our ball,’ and we jumped at the chance," Knight said.
It’s a first for the Society, and like a good first sergeant, Knight and his organization started by looking out for the troops. The group began fundraising to get the cost of tickets as low as possible, "especially for the lower enlisted."
Thanks to sponsors, the tickets are sold on a sliding scale, with sergeants and below being able to buy tickets for $25 each. The higher in rank or government scale pay grade, the more the tickets cost – anywhere from $65 to $100.
Gold Star families will attend free, with the society paying for their tickets, Knight said.
"That’s something we thought was very important," he said.
As for why a ball, Knight said it’s a chance for the division’s soldiers to get together in a formal but relaxed setting.
"It’s a way for soldiers, NCOs and officers to come together in kind of the old fashioned, knight-in-armor kind of way, and it’s a way to be out there with your spouse and be around fellow soldiers you work with all the time, but unofficially so you can let your guard down a little bit and establish relationships," he said.
The ball will begin with a cocktail hour at 5 p.m., Knight said. Dinner, awards presentations and the announcement of the Marne Rock Stars and dancing will follow.
The Society will offer lifetime memberships for eligible soldiers and their spouses during the ball for $100, a price which celebrates the 3rd ID’s 100-years of existence.
And Knight said staying involved with the division, or a Veteran’s group, is something some soldiers find important once they leave the military.
"Veterans organizations, whether it’s us or the American Legion or the VFW, they’re important because they help veterans re-establish those ties with one another. When you get out of the military, you can lose that sense of camaraderie and being a part of something greater than yourself."