By Bethany Bray
---- — SALEM — Blue, red and camouflage uniforms filled City Hall yesterday for a special ceremony to mark Salem’s federal designation as the birthplace of the National Guard.
Although widely accepted locally, Salem’s designation as the birthplace of the Guard became official only when President Barack Obama signed a bill into law last week.
“We’ve known for a long time this is where things originated,” said Congressman John Tierney, who brought a framed copy of the bill to yesterday’s ceremony. “... It’s an honor to see this come to fruition.”
According to history, the nation’s first militia, which was the foundation for what would become the National Guard, first gathered on Salem Common in 1637. The National Guard holds a muster on the common each April to celebrate its connection to the city.
“It’s one thing to proclaim ourselves as the birthplace of the National Guard. It’s another thing to have federal designation,” said Mayor Kim Driscoll, standing against a backdrop of flags in the City Council chambers. “... This really recognizes our community coming together, for the common good.”
Yesterday was an especially proud day for Mary O’Leary, widow of the late City Councilor Lenny O’Leary.
Her husband first got the ball rolling to designate Salem as the National Guard birthplace in 2007. O’Leary’s City Council resolution to designate Salem as the birthplace was one of the last things he championed before he passed away.
“(Lenny) would be thrilled, if he could be here,” Mary O’Leary said. “... (This is) a great tribute to the National Guard, a great tribute to Lenny.”
City officials, veterans, politicians and National Guardsmen gathered at City Hall yesterday for the ceremony. Councilors Joseph O’Keefe, Jerry Ryan, Bill Legault and Michael Sosnowski attended, along with Driscoll, Tierney, state Sen. Joan Lovely and state Rep. John Keenan.
“I can’t say enough about Lenny,” Lovely said. “He would have been very proud to be here today.”
After O’Leary’s 2007 resolution was passed, state Rep. John Keenan sponsored a state-level bill declaring the same, which Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law in August 2010.
Tierney then took the issue to Capitol Hill, to gain federal recognition. Obama signed the bill into law on Jan. 10.
The National Guard is the oldest component of America’s military; its members have served in every major conflict in U.S. history. Today, the Guard’s “citizen soldiers” serve not only in conflict zones, but domestically, including natural disaster relief efforts.
This weekend, 6,000 National Guard soldiers from across the United States will support President Barack Obama’s inauguration, from traffic control and crowd management to emergency services.
Yesterday, Tierney said the nation “leans heavily” on the National Guard, both for national defense and service.
“It’s not just that the National Guard originated here in Salem, it’s the work they continue to do,” Tierney said.
“What a lineage we have, what an honor to be here,” said Maj. Gen. L. Scott “Catfish” Rice, adjutant general of the Massachusetts National Guard. “What a great meeting of all the history in this place.”
Last April, hundreds of troops gathered on the common for a muster marking the Guard’s 375th anniversary.
This year’s muster is planned for April 6.
Not much will change about the muster, a longtime tradition, with this month’s federal designation, Rice said.
However, participants will “stand a little straighter, a little taller” this year, he said, smiling.
Bethany Bray can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.