JERICHO -- The 10th Mountain Division recruited soldiers from the National Ski Patrol System, and then became a key influence on the post-World War II ski industry, with veterans founding ski magazines, schools and resorts. So it was fitting that their worldwide counterpart, the International Federation of Mountain Soldiers (IFMS), chose Stowe and surrounding areas as the site of its 20th annual congress, held September 7-11.
Sixty years ago, some of these men faced each other in combat, as members of the 10th fought European troops throughout the Alps. When they arrived at Stowe's Trapp Family Lodge on September 10, they faced each other as friends, thanks to the formation of the IFMS in 1985 in Mittenwald, Germany. Their war, some of the former soldiers said, seemed much different from the current complications in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We knew who the enemy were, and we knew where the enemy were," said Dick Wilson, 82, president of the New England chapter of the National Association of the 10th Mountain Division. "Now war has gotten so sophisticated."
The congress included opening ceremonies, a memorial gathering at the 10th Mountain Division ski trooper statue in Stowe, a meeting and a closing banquet. During an outing to the Army Mountain Warfare School (AMWS) in Jericho on September 9, veterans, spouses, descendants and other IFMS supporters dined on submarine sandwiches in the mess hall before inspecting displays of modern mountain gear and weapons set up near a climbing wall in a warehouse. (The 10th, whose veterans include former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), has been the most heavily deployed division in the U.S. Army in the last decade.) Black Diamond ice axes, lightweight Dynastar touring skis, GoreTex and polypropylene lay near an M-60 and a sniper data book. "It's amazing, fabulous," said Wilson. "We used skis that were like two-by-fours!"
Wilson, who spent three years in the hospital after fighting Germans in the seminal attack at Mount Belvedere in Italy, said the relationships are "very, very good," among IFMS members. "As a matter of fact," he said, "two of my best friends are Germans."
With students from Middlebury College translating, the participants -- who represented not only Germany and the U.S., but also Austria, France, Italy, Poland, Slovenia, Spain and Switzerland -- boarded buses to a large wall of concrete blocks tucked against the woods near the AMWS for a demonstration of mountain-rescue techniques. "Now they're going to show us how to do it," said Ralph Mattson, 85, of Kingston, N.Y., "so we can see what we did wrong."
A young cadre of American, German and Swiss soldiers then burst onto the scene, their carabiners clanking as they began to scramble up the wall. "Hooah!" someone yelled from a folding chair. From the obscured plateau of land at the top of the wall came the rat-a-tat-tat of simulated gunfire, along with impressive clouds of pink, green and white smoke, which smelled like kids' cap guns. A few soldiers bounded down a zip-line before sending a stretcher to safe ground.
Everyone clapped for the "actors," who seemed as impressed by their elders as the veterans were by the performance. Wilson said he has tremendous respect for those being deployed today. "Some of these kids coming out of Fort Drum, they're 20 or 21, and already on their third tour of duty!" he said. "It's a son of a gun."