Highway to the Mountain

Story by Steve Ghiringhelli, Fort Drum Mountaineer

Designated the Paul Cerjan Memorial Highway, northern New York’s new I-781 connector road between I-81 and Fort Drum’s north gate opened to traffic, Dec. 6, 2012. (U.S. Army photo by Steve Ghiringhelli)

The insights of one man have left a timeless mark on Fort Drum, the 10th Mountain Division and northern New York’s “North Country.”

The new Paul Cerjan Memorial Highway (I-781) between Fort Drum and I-81 that opened to traffic last month has been named for the general known as the architectural mastermind behind Fort Drum’s modern-day cantonment area.

Lt. Gen. Paul G. Cerjan, who died two years ago at age 72, served as 10th Mountain Division assistant commander for support from 1985 to 1987, when he oversaw one of the Army’s largest garrison expansion projects since World War II.

His foresight during the buildup is credited with leaving the 10th Mountain Division enough room to stand up another brigade after 9/11.

“He foresaw it coming way before any of it ever happened,” said Tony Keating, civilian aide to the secretary of the Army. “I think the genius of his plan was simply that. He recognized that what looked like humungous amounts of space between buildings and between units was about what would be needed for growth when it came. And boy did it come. He was right on target.”

People who remember North Post – the territory north of Gasoline Alley – as the undeveloped stretch of woods it once was say it was, in large part, Cerjan’s ingenuity that helped make Fort Drum the Army community of excellence it is today.

“He deserved this kind of recognition,” said retired Col. Mike Plummer, who served as division chief of staff alongside Cerjan. “The footprint that is on the ground is the personification of Paul Cerjan, and (Maj. Gen.) Bill Carpenter (then commanding general).

“But Paul was the driver. He was an engineer, and he understood how to make things work,” he said. “Bill and I were infantrymen. We didn’t know how to spell ‘engineer.'”

Plummer, a Fort Drum advocate in the local community since retiring here in 1991, suggested Cerjan’s name to state Sen. Patty Ritchie of New York’s 48th District. She sponsored the bill, and New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed it into law in July of 2012.

Over the holidays, Fort Drum leaders welcomed elected officials on post for the state of New York’s official dedication ceremony of the connector road.

“This highway we memorialize today is indeed fitting for the New York native who served his state and his nation so honorably,” Brig. Gen. Walter E. Piatt, 10th Mountain Division deputy commanding general for support, told Cerjan family members and others gathered Dec. 27 on post.

The interstate, which winds through five miles of local countryside, was a $57 million project begun more than two years ago. It is the largest highway construction project in the area since I-81 was built in the 1950s, according to state Department of Transportation officials.

Build a city

The running joke at Fort Drum is that the modern-day 10th Mountain Division was founded by a carpenter, a surgeon and a plumber.

In 1984, Army headquarters diverted Maj. Gen. Bill Carpenter from an overseas assignment to instead stand up a new light infantry division somewhere in the U.S.

Carpenter and Plummer headed to northern New York later that year; Cerjan joined them in March 1985.

The three had been classmates at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where they graduated in 1960. Plummer said their longstanding relationships meant they could quickly get down to business.

“There was no fooling around, no pretending,” Plummer said. “Let’s just get together and get the job done.”

Cerjan, a brigadier general at the time, was tasked with transforming Fort Drum from a small Reserve training center into a world-class military installation.

“Our mission between 1985 and 1988 was to man, equip, train and get ready to go to war a 10,000-man light infantry division,” Plummer said. “And oh, by the way, here’s $1.2 billion. Build a city.”

Today, that “city” is Fort Drum’s North Post – the expansive, contemporary portion of the installation that is home to one of the Army’s most deployed divisions.

Cerjan’s signature blueprint here is the large elliptical layout, with division headquarters at the center and the brigades fanned out in a half-moon on the upper perimeter. “He probably didn’t need to have anything named after him, because his fingerprints are literally on everything,” Keating said. “The master plan – the blueprint for the

cantonment area – was pretty much his.

“But this is really nice,” Keating said about the highway dedication. “A lot of people … forget that he was the guy (who) designed the place.”

During his tenure at Fort Drum, Cerjan ensured unit pads were reinforced to handle tanks in case the division ever went heavy; he travelled to Army posts across the country and abroad to consult with pilots and mechanics before designing hangars at the airfield; he managed to bury wires underground to eliminate the eyesore of poles and cables lining the streets; he conceived of making Clark Hall a one-stop, in-processing center to ease the transition of Soldiers.

He even did things like ensuring baseball diamonds laid out behind Magrath Gym were visible to family members who wanted to watch more than one game from the warmth of their cars.

“Who gets to design a city?” said Cerjan’s wife, Patricia. “For someone who loved Soldiers, someone who loved to build, someone who just loved to create, it was a dream

Cerjan suits up before jumping from a plane. Years later, he would jump with his son, David, who was attending Airborne School. (Courtesy Photo)

come true.”

Soldiers and families first

The general’s oldest son, Robert, a senior at Norwich University in Vermont at the time of Fort Drum’s expansion, visited his parents for Christmas break in 1985. He said he distinctly remembers overhearing his father trying to convince the division commander he was not crazy.

“Carpenter kept asking my father: ‘Why aren’t we laying cement for sidewalks? And why haven’t we built the airfield yet?'” said Robert Cerjan, now an Army colonel at U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa. “My father responded: ‘I want to first see where the people walk. Then we will lay the concrete.’”

His father added: “‘Take care of Soldiers and their families; then go back to the service and tell them you don’t have enough money for the airfield, and they will give you the money.’”

The general’s dedication to Fort Drum extended off post, too, where he sought to integrate military and civilian communities.

He helped launch a steering committee, now called the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Office, and shared important information with committee members, such as where to place the water line up to Fort Drum when determining which way officials wanted the city develop.

“He knew if you didn’t bring in your surrounding communities and tell them what’s going on, you would lose their support,” Patricia Cerjan said.

Cerjan also flew local leaders on a C-130 to a small city in the South, to show them what a military community looked like without proper zoning. Officials came back and passed zoning laws, Plummer said, which led to the absence of pawn shops and tattoo parlors in conspicuous areas.

Patricia Cerjan says that, plus the sight of 10th Mountain Division flags, stickers and yellow ribbons everywhere, is what makes the North Country unlike most military communities.

“It’s (different), but there were some people who really wanted it to be (different),” she said. “Paul, Bill and Mike wanted that.”

Cerjan had a penchant for perfection. If something did not seem right, he considered it, even when his hunch was hard to pin down – like his intuitions about Fort Drum weather patterns.

Plummer said roads in the original blueprint would have run perpendicular to the main roads on South Post to save money in piping steam.

“Paul would look at the diagrams and say, ‘There is something wrong here.’ He wasn’t sure what it was, but he knew something wasn’t right,” Plummer said. “So he got a couple of smart majors and said, ‘I want you guys to really take a look at this.'”

After conducting experiments, the majors realized the prevailing winds on post from southwest to northeast scoured the roads of any snow on South Post, but would have blocked roads with drifts on the new post, Plummer said.

“Because of Paul’s questioning – wondering what the second- and third-order effects would be – we did it this way,” he noted.

More than 25 years later, Keating says so many things at Fort Drum trace back to Cerjan.

“The design was done a certain way,” he said. “Through the years, people have said, ‘Thank God, whoever did this, did it this way.’

“His legacy is on every street corner.”

Faith, family and Army life

Cerjan died in April 2011, while leading his wife out of their Valrico, Fla., home on the way to a Palm Sunday church service.

Both full of faith and down-to-earth, he is remembered by loved ones for his fun-loving, reflective nature – someone who liked to laugh, share stories, cook for guests, explore Christian theology, counsel friends and live by his faith.

“Paul loved life, loved people and loved adventure,” Patricia Cerjan said. “Every day was an adventure with Paul. He would get out of bed (wondering), ‘What’s out there today?'”

Cerjan’s parents were patriotic first-generation Americans of Polish descent. He grew up in Rome in central New York.

He met his wife in the 1960s, when she was a school teacher in Germany and he was assigned to the 4th Armored Division. “We loved each other incredibly,” Patricia Cerjan said. “He was my best friend.”

Cerjan served in seven different U.S. Army divisions. His key assignments included executive officer for the supreme allied commander in Europe; director of the 9th Infantry Division’s High Technology Test Bed; commandant of the U.S. Army War College; and president of the National Defense University.

As deputy commander in chief of U.S. Army, Europe and Seventh Army, he led 70,000 people in supervising all aspects of community life in Europe for 300,000 Americans.

Cerjan also was responsible for the planning and subsequent safe removal of all U.S. nuclear warheads from Europe.

He served two combat tours in Vietnam with the 1st Cavalry Division and the 101st Airborne Division.

Following his retirement in 1994, he worked for several defense contractors before he became president of Regent University, a Christian university in Virginia Beach, Va.

After 9/11, Cerjan returned to military work, this time deploying as a contractor to Kuwait and active combat zones in Iraq, where he was in charge of delivering food, munitions and other supplies to U.S. and coalition forces.

His strong commitment to Soldiers and for ensuring the highest standards were met when it came to supporting them drove him to the front lines.

“He was always following the sound of the gun,” his wife said. “He wanted to touch Soldiers. He wanted to make a difference in Soldiers’ lives. His motto was the same that is on the wall of the office of the secretary of defense: ‘Whom shall I send? … Send Thou me.’”

Robert Cerjan, who was deployed to Iraq with Special Operations Command Central at the same time as his father, said the retired general logged more combat time than he did.

“He (also) took time out to find me and sit down and talk about home and the family,” he said. “He was able to find peace and solitude, and provide it to me as well.

“They were the best meals I ever had (while) deployed.”

The youngest of the Cerjan brothers described the “act of breaking bread with my father” as a practically sacred experience.

“Not in a theological manner,” Timothy Cerjan said. “But because you had so many ‘come to Jesus’ moments.”

Yet, even with a side to Cerjan that was nothing less than intense, those closest to him also remember the fun. Robert Cerjan said he learned to laugh from his father. Robert’s son, Christopher, an Army ROTC candidate, also remembers the friendly ribbing.

“He was always the grandfather who had the dry sense of humor,” he said. “You could joke with him about anything.”

Patricia Cerjan said his good nature made him appear very easygoing. “And he was easygoing,” she said. “But he could bore down into details that (many others) could never bore down into.

“He was very simplistic and yet very complex.”

Timothy Cerjan describes him as the combination of a modern-day visionary and “old-school industrialist.”

“He was a futurist and an engineer,” he said. “(He) envisioned the future; then built it.”

Growing up, the Cerjan brothers said they saw “the general” simply as “Dad.” They remember a man who relentlessly loved and coached and mentored them, who was present in their lives no matter what his assignment.

“He had a gift where, whatever you were saying to him, right then at that moment, it was the most important thing going on,” Timothy Cerjan said. “He would listen in a way where he was hearing not just your words but your intent. It never looked like he was waiting to talk.”

“He was demanding,” said David Cerjan, the middle son and a former captain in Army Special Forces, “But in a way that brought endless encouragement and built you up.

“The influence and the mentorship he provided over the years cannot be described properly, because I thought all fathers did the things he did and provided.”

He added that his father commissioned him a second lieutenant, jumped with him during Airborne School and inspired him to try out for Special Forces.

“I could not wait to tell my dad,” he said of the phone call to his parents in Germany after he heard about his selection. “I think he was more excited than me, if that was possible.”

Sons and daughters

From sons to comrades to loving wife, the impact Cerjan had on so many is unmistakable and still felt today.

But his influence on Fort Drum, the 10th Mountain Division and the North Country will endure for many years to come.

“(Soldiers) stay in the area because they either love the winters or they love the summers,” Patricia Cerjan said. “But they found a home here. They found a community that did not want them to leave.”

Northern New York’s close-knit military community continues to be a hallmark of Carpenter, Cerjan and Plummer, and other early 10th Mountain Division settlers, all of whom wanted North Country warmth, friendliness and patriotism woven into the fabric of Fort Drum.

Plummer described Cerjan’s allegiance to the Army community here as something not unlike his feelings for his Vietnam War buddies.

“The Soldiers you love the most are the ones you go to combat with,” Plummer said. “So Paul’s were from the 1st Cavalry Division and the 101st (Airborne). He had a special love for them.

“But right equal to those Soldiers, if there is such a thing, (are) the Soldiers you give birth to,” he said. “Paul always talked about how we re-birthed the 10th Mountain Division. They were his sons and daughters.”

After learning of the highway’s dedication to her husband last year, Patricia Cerjan said her husband would have been “overwhelmed” and “very humbled” by the gesture. She said he loved the Soldiers and communities of northern New York, which is why they returned each year to their summer cottage in Henderson Harbor to fish and visit old friends.

She also said she is proud of the man who loved his life and lived it to the fullest.

“Paul was a little lightheaded that (Palm Sunday) morning,” she said. “But he kept moving on, which is what Paul always did with an ache or pain. Nothing kept him from living and loving life.”

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the Jan. 10, 2013 edition of The Fort Drum Mountaineer.



  1. The story on LT Gen Paul Cerjan is with out doubt one of the best Military stories I have ever read. It was outstanding, uplifting and down right good.

    Thank you