It was a Disneyland for military buffs young and old Saturday at Dahlonega’s Camp Frank D. Merrill, when the 12th annual Camp Merrill Open House allowed the U.S. Army Rangers to show their stuff to a crowd that included family, veterans and especially awestruck children.
"That was incredible!" one small child yelled up to his father after a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter swooped down with a rotor-created windstorm that sent baseball caps flying off the heads of spectators.
Later, six of the elite soldiers swung from a rope attached to a copter flying high above the crowd, firing blanks from their M-4 rifles as admirers cheered.
The open house was part military carnival, part training exercise, part battle simulation and part theater (including some "Three Stooges"-style improvisation in the hand-to-hand combat demonstration). Foremost to the Fifth Ranger Training Battalion, the annual event is a way of letting the camp’s Northeast Georgia neighbors get a peek at what’s going on beyond the gates when they hear all those helicopters in the skies.
"It gives the civilian population a look at what the Ranger community does here," said Sgt. 1st Class Jason Luft, a spokesman for Camp Merrill. "We’re really just letting them know what we have and what we’re capable of doing."
Among the more popular attractions were the weapon firing stations, where participants could shoot .40 caliber guns loaded with blanks, and the night vision device station, a blacked-out barracks building where kids and adults tried out goggles used in nighttime operations.
Included among the military- themed kiosks was a group of men wearing vintage battlefield uniforms and weapons from the World War II era — re-enactors known as "Kelly’s Zeroes" — who gave the event a past-meets-present flavor.
"This is great for the community," said 18-year-old Austin Arrington, who wore the clothing, pack and weaponry authentic to a soldier from the World War II Pacific theater, specifically Burma. "It’s also a great chance for us to come out and show what we do. It’s a really family oriented event."
Millie Fleshman and Joe McRae of Canton brought two Boy Scouts from Troop 3100 to watch the spectacle and hear the blasts of mock explosives.
The soldiers’ sense of discipline was rubbing off on one 9-year-old scout, McRae said.
"He’s already saying ‘yes, sir,’" she joked.
Dave Allen, a new resident of Dahlonega, rode in the morning’s 22-mile mountain bike race and stuck around to get a look at the camp.
"It’s really well-organized and a good crowd," he said. "I’m glad I came out."
Allen figured the helicopters would be a hit with his 3-year-old son.
"My boy likes anything mechanical," he said.
About 3,000 people were expected for the all-day event, which culminated with the annual "critter cookout" that included wild hog, bear, snake and possum.
Staci Boatfield came with her mother and other family members primarily for the annual Fallen Ranger Memorial Bridge dedication, in which six names of deceased former Rangers are installed near a commemorative plaque at the bridge that leads onto the airfield. Boatfield’s father, 22-year Army veteran Michael Davis, died of cancer earlier this year.
For Boatfield, the open house was more than just loud explosions, colored smoke and airborne acrobatics.
"I realize now the importance of the Ranger Camp and what these guys go through," she said. "I know that my dad would be proud."