The shouted instructions of CPT. Dennis Brock, retired, 190th Engineer Company, rang out inside the Tennessee Army National Guard Armory in Russellville on April 7.
The command was heeded, albeit a bit slower than in years past, by the group of soldiers who were gathered around the folding tables and chairs set up near the front wall of the large assembly room that holds framed memorabilia from 55 years of the Armory’s tenure in Hamblen County.
The occasion was the annual reunion of the 190th. The action required of the troops was to gather for a group photo.
The mix of soldiers, including combat veterans who served in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, provided an eclectic collection of memories.
The Tennessee National Guard has a wealth of experience and common-sense knowledge within its troop base, as evidenced by other military factions seeking them out during combat situations.
During his stint in Vietnam, SFC Jame Couch flew a Tennessee flag over his hootch so that other units could easily find him. “The helicopters flying overhead could see it,” Couch said. “Most of the time, we didn’t have a uniform on.”
Couch had his doubts about the National Guard until he joined.
“To me, National Guard meant ‘no go’ or ‘no good,’ until I got in. I found out the National Guard has a higher education and higher IQ than the regular Army.”
Couch stayed in for 21 years, 10 months, 12 days and 45 seconds; and he was ready to retire when the time came.
“People ask me what the 45 seconds was and I tell them, ‘That’s how long it took me to get off post,’” Couch said.
“When we served, the average age was around 35, that’s a lot of experience and maturity” Brock said. “In Afghanistan, the regular Army infantry had 19 negative discharges in-country during the first 30 days; we had zero the whole deployment.”
During the 2004-2005 deployment to Iraq, the engineer company displayed its practical ingenuity when a building that housed a wash room and showers burnt down in the summer of 2005.
“We had licensed plumbers, electricians and experienced concrete workers and finishers,” Brock said. “It took us just a week to build it back.”
The men had to find parts, including the smallest, like wire nuts that cost 50 cents each in country. They painted “See Rock City” on the roof of the new building, and their efforts made international news reports. Helicopters used it as a landmark.
Retired Morristown Police Department Det. Steve Riner, who also served with the 190th, recalled the days of driving a tank – “It weighed 52 tons combat loaded; you could run over a pine tree and never feel it.”
Gov. Buford Ellington dedicated the Russellville Armory in 1962. Prior to the new building construction, the unit was posted to an adjacent building known as the “Poor House” that served as a medical facility during the depression. According to several veterans who were present at Saturday’s reunion, the building still had two iron lungs in one of the rooms. The site is now the home of Russellville Elementary School.
Known as weekend warriors, national guardsmen also worked full-time day jobs while enlisted.
Riner worked the scene of an automobile accident while serving with the MPD that involved a young girl. After cleaning glass out of her eyes and hair, he gave her a Teddy Bear that he had kept in the trunk of his patrol car. Sometime later, he walked into a restaurant wearing his National Guard uniform and the girl spotted him. She excitedly told her parents, “there’s the man who gave me the Teddy Bear.”
“Her dad told her, ‘No, honey, that other man had a policeman’s uniform on.’ I had to explain to him that she was right, I was the same man,” Riner said.
The Russellville Armory housed a variety of units over the years: infantry, transportation and combat engineers, to name a few.
During the 1970s, according to SFC Doyle Justice, the Armory housed a mortar unit, with small equipment set up inside the assembly hall – the exact spot where exercise equipment was on Saturday.
“They had coffee cans set up at the front wall over there,” Justice said. “They could hit those cans eight times out of 10. There are still dents in the concrete floor where the tips of the shells would come down.”
Justice retired in 2011 after 40 years of service. He lives in North Carolina and travels back to Morristown for every reunion. During his service, he spend time in Germany and throughout Europe. He served in Iraq during 2008-09.
He said the camaraderie is just one of the reasons he enjoys spending time at the Armory.
“I feel we were the ones that laid the foundation for this unit,” he said.