'Duty, honor, country' - A monumental year for Harford County in 2017

Harford County's sons and daughters have never wavered when called upon to defend their country at home or abroad, and 2017 marked a special anniversary in Harford's long relationship with the military.

It was 100 years earlier that the first soldiers occupied the nascent federal proving grounds hastily being laid out over vegetable farms and swamps east of Aberdeen that had been known as Boothby Hill.

The arrival of Aberdeen Proving Ground altered life in Harford in so many ways, bringing tens of thousands of people to the area over the ensuing decades to train as soldiers or to work as civilians. Many stayed or came back to settle when their active duty tours ended.

The "proving ground," as many residents have come to call it, has led to the development of important materiel for war and peace, earning its reputation as the Army's premier research and development installation.

The post command held several events throughout 2017 to recognize the 100-year milestone, several involving the public, including an open house and live fire exercise in May.

Also in May, a new memorial was unveiled in Aberdeen's downtown Festival Park dedicated to 46 people connected with APG who died in workplace accidents, as well as the late Maj. Gen. Harry Greene, who had a command at the post before being killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan in 2014.

APG was established on the eve of the United States entry into World War I. As part of a major revitalization of Tydings Park, the City of Havre de Grace completed a major renovation of the park's War Memorial that was originally dedicated to city residents who died in the Great War.

It was also a year to remember and honor some county residents who died in wars past but also to sadly remember the United States remains at war.

Army Staff Sgt. Mark De Alencar became the county's latest sacrifice to the continuing War on Terror when he died April 8 from wounds suffered while fighting Islamic State insurgents in Afghanistan.

Staff Sgt. De Alencar, 37, was a 1998 graduate of Joppatowne High School who lived in Edgewood in his teens and 20s. He was a member of the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) and was was working with Afghan troops when he was mortally wounded.

His funeral service was held at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Abingdon and en route to his burial at Arlington National Cemetery, his funeral procession drove through the west side of the county and past his former high school.

"We decided that my husband is an American hero, and he will be laid to rest with the soldiers that have served this country," Natasha De Alencar, his widow, said. The couple met in high school. They had five children.

In June, a ceremony was held in Perryville to dedicate the Route 222 overpass across Interstate 95 in memory of Marine Cpl. Dale Burger Jr. who was killed in action at age 21 in 2004 while fighting in Iraq. Cpl. Burger had grown up in Bel Air and was living in Cecil County when he died. A research building at APG was previously named in his honor.

"For me to move on, I needed to make sure my son was always remembered," the fallen marine's mother, Martina, said at the Perryville ceremony.

A few days before Veterans Day, Harford County honored its only native born Medal of Honor recipient, Union Army Sgt. Alfred B. Hilton, by naming the Route 22 overpass across I-95 in Aberdeen in his memory. Descendants of Sgt. Hilton, who grew up near Havre de Grace and was mortally wounded in Civil War combat in 1864, attended the dedication.

"In a time when sacrifices are often forgotten, I am humbled by the opportunity to stand here today to honor a true American hero," Maryland Deputy Transportation Deputy Secretary James F. Ports Jr. said in remarks during the ceremony. "His charge into battle and the sacrifice that he made will be forever memorialized for all to see."

In a commentary he wrote for Veterans Day, APG senior commander Maj. Gen. Randy Taylor urged the Harford County community not to forget the men and women who wear the uniform, either during or after their service.

"Because it's not the Army that goes to war. Or the Air Force, Navy, or Marines. It's you, and it's me. It's our brother and sisters, neighbors, friends and co-workers. It's our entire nation," Taylor wrote. "Though the nature of warfare has evolved, the conflicts our soldiers are engaged in today are no less impactful to our national security and interests — and no less deadly. Accordingly, the burden to lift up these warriors, and their families who have sacrificed so much, rests on all of our shoulders."

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