Attending the joint American Legion Memorial Day Service with my Savannah State University intern Odyssey Wade, we rolled up to Section O in the southeast corner of Bonaventure Cemetery on Monday, May 29 to find a gathering of the who's who in the military world.
I love veterans! After working with the Veterans Council of Chatham County for the past two and half years, I have become an even bigger fan of our living legends.
Walking up, I see the always classy 2019 Veteran of the Year John Parker holding court with Chatham County Sheriff John Wilcher and State Representative Edna Jackson while incoming Post 184 Commander Mike DiTomasso chats with Post 36 Commander Doug Andrews.
Let’s talk about one of the most talented men I know! Not only is Doug an esteemed attorney and judge, a former Chief Assistant District attorney, military judge and past Veteran of the Year, he served 7 years consecutively as the Chairman of the Veterans Council.
He has been on more boards than anyone I know and is my go to guy for correct military titles, abbreviations and history.
A walking encyclopedia of all things military, this loquacious genius tells me, “I am getting ready to celebrate my 54th anniversary with my wife Pam on Flag Day, June 14th — she refused to marry me on the 13th!”
Another project for Doug has been combining forces with Post 500 and Post 36 to start a new legion post home just outside Hunter Army Airfield on Montgomery Street. Recently holding a Meet-n-Greet with Post 500 Commander James Putney, I stopped by their fish fry/ cornhole/social to support the little guy with the biggest personality.
As usual James is the most dapper dressed dude here and has arrived early and is making his rounds socializing. The beloved Veterans Council, The DIVE and American Legion First District chaplain is a Savannah native, a former PTA District director and has to be one of the most recognizable military men in town.
“Thank you for coming out to spend time with us Saturday. We are working on having the kitchen and bar installed, have opened up the space and painted the former A-Z Military Surplus Store, beauty shop, Geico and Vape shop. It has been a lot of things but now it is the home of two ‘first’ Posts, - Post 36 was the first American Legion in the City of Savannah in 1919 and Post 500 was established in 1946 and is the oldest African American post in Georgia,” shares the Post 500 Commander.
After a hug and pic of James with Edna, I head over to shake hands with former Captain of the Port of Savannah, Veteran of the Year 2013 and World War II Veteran CMDR Bob Cutler who is attending with his daughter Carol Sheen Purcell.
My favorite WSAV dude is here! Amped to see Joseph Leonard on the front side of the camera, I point out dignitaries like Civilian Aid to the Secretary of the Army Pete Hoffman along with 2003 Veteran of the Year and Military Order of the Purple Heart National Commander Jerry Walker.
We also have Father Frank Ziemkiewiczhave of Benedictine Military School. The retired U.S.Army Colonel served as Chaplain in the U.S. Army during a tour in Iraq and has served as BC headmaster for the past 18 years.
Over at the sound table, we have Doug’s son-in-law Randy Dutson prepping the service songs and hymns. The Army cavalry veteran and home inspector supreme has been a constant support for Doug for the past 15 years and is the Sergeant-in-Arms at Post 184. His wife Kathy is past Auxiliary President of Post 184, and she is one fabulous female!
Walking through the crowd of uniforms, I am on the lookout for Savannah’s favorite Irish son and 2020 Veteran of the Year Jimmy Ray. For the first time in more that 30 years, Jimmy is MIA while he recuperates from back surgery and his presence is sorely missed. We are waiting for you, Marine!
It’s start time! Veterans Council Chairman Joe Higgins takes the mic to welcome the 130-plus attendees. Sporting a blue suit and red power tie, Joe has come into his own with the whole public speaking gig and welcomes Mayor Van Johnson and Alderman Nick Palumbo, the Sheriff, Edna and Pete.
After retired chaplain Tom MacGalliard gives the invocation, Color Guards Charles Black, Leon Leach, William Woodcock, Barry Myer, James Grefe retire and replace the flag, and Taps Bugler Don Sitter performs, Joe introduces today’s guest speaker, Maj. Jennifer Fortenberry Ball.
“You see Jennifer everywhere but most people don’t know all she accomplished and went through in the military. She was 10 years active duty as a Blackhawk pilot with one tour in Iraq and two tours in Afghanistan with her last assignment serving as a Company Commander of an Bravo Company 4th Battalion 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade,” adds Joe.
Along with her twin sister, Amanda Clary, who was also a Blackhawk helicopter pilot, they followed their father’s path of flying.
“My dad was a gunship helicopter pilot in Vietnam. We grew up going to their reunions and seeing their camaraderie and love of country made us want to carry the torch,” shares the 5 '1” blonde warrior.
Sitting beside her and beaming with pride is her husband Mike Ball, also a former SOAR aviator and incoming senior vice commander for Post 135 on Bull Street.
With ceremonies like this honoring our fallen heroes, I think of Jennifer’s last quote, “Dying for our country isn’t the worst thing that can happen, being forgotten is.”
And as I stand arm and arm with my Step One Automotive Group queen Maja Ciric, I look up at the sunlight streaming through the moss covered trees, sing “God Bless the USA”and give a silent thank you to these service members who lost their lives so we can live ours. We are here to remember them and to make sure their sacrifice is never forgotten.