Florida Student Choir to Join D-Day Commemorations

The June 1944 newspaper displayed on the bulletin board at the East Lake High School performance classroom of choir director Robert Knabel.

The June 1944 newspaper displayed on the bulletin board at the East Lake High School performance classroom of choir director Robert Knabel.

There will be many tributes and memorial services over the next week to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Among those marking the historic battle will be 31 young voices from Pinellas County.

Their East Lake High School choir was invited to travel to France to sing as part of the commemoration. The choir leaves this Sunday, June 8, 2014, and will perform several concerts next week in France.

Inside the choir classroom is a bulletin board covered with photos of France. There’s also a newspaper that dates back to June 1944 with the headline: INVASION – in bold red letters.

Choir director Robert Knabel points to the blue star flag presented to him by Gold Star mothers who have lost a child in combat. The blue star indicates that Knabel has family in military service. His son is now serving.

Choir director Robert Knabel points to the blue star flag presented to him by Gold Star mothers who have lost a child in combat. The blue star indicates that Knabel has family in military service. His son is now serving.

Choir director Robert Knabel has spent the last 15 months preparing his choir for the trip.

“One concert is going to be a 20 minute sacred concert on the steps of the Notre Dame Cathedral and that’s an honor,” Knabel said.

But he said the most special concert will be performed next week at the cemetery of U.S. troops that overlooks Omaha Beach.

“The kids are going to have some time and they’re going to be allowed to walk down the bluff to the actual beach where those soldiers died,” Knabel said.

Knabel enlisted the help of Advanced Placement history teacher Alan Kay to give students a better understanding of the significance of D-Day.

“There are two reasons we’re doing this. The first is to make that connection between this generation and the generation we’re losing so quickly and to have the kids understand what sacrifice is about,” Kay said. “And the second part  is just because D-Day itself is such an amazing story.”

The 31 students in the choir practiced three days a week for a year and raised $164,000 to pay for their trip to France to perform four D-Day concerts.

The 31 students in the choir practiced three days a week for a year and raised $164,000 to pay for their trip to France to perform four D-Day concerts.

Kay also has a personal reason for his involvement. His daughter Jamie is a member of the choir that practiced three times a week for a year and raised $164,000 to pay for their trip.

“I think the most successful fundraiser was when we sold Yankee candles,” Jamie Kay said. Her grandfather served in the Army but was not involved in the war.

But two of the choir members had family members in the historic battle.

“I had a few of my relatives in the D-Day invasion. Thankfully, all of them survived,” Stephanie Hamilton said.

Choir members gather around the piano to rehearse.

Choir members gather around the piano to rehearse.

One of her great uncles was a pilot delivering paratroopers over Normandy when his plane was shot down, crash-landed and he broke his back. He was taken prisoner and remained a prisoner until the end of the war. Hamilton’s other great uncle was a captain in the infantry and among the first troops to land on Utah Beach.

The choir will perform sacred music, some patriotic songs and a special piece of music arranged by. Knabel. It’s an arrangement of the U.S. and French national anthems called A Tribute to Friendship.

And while Knabel didn’t have a relative on the beaches for D-Day, his son just graduated from college and ROTC and is now serving. So above the D-Day newspaper in his classroom, hangs a blue star flag indicating he has family is serving.

You can hear the WUSF radio story and listen to a full rendition of the musical work, A Tribute to Friendship, by Robert Knabel.

April 5, 2014: Today Is Gold Star Wives Day

An act of Congress established the Gold Star Lapel Pin (left), for issue to immediate family members of service members killed in combat. The Next of Kin Pin (right) signifies a service-related. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army.

An act of Congress established the Gold Star Lapel Pin (left), for issue to immediate family members of service members killed in combat. The Next of Kin Pin (right) signifies a service-related. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army.

By William Bradner – U.S. Army Installation Management Command

“It’s heartbreaking to think of someone asking ‘what a beautiful pin, where can I get one?'” said Gold Star Wife Donna Engeman.

“We need to ensure the nation — the world — recognizes what that pin really signifies,” she continued.

April 5, 2014, has been designated by Congress as “Gold Star Wives Day.” The intent is to publicly recognize the sacrifices made by our service members in support of our nation.

Though the official designation of the Gold Star Wives Day is relatively new, the gold star has officially been recognized as a symbol of loss since 1918.

Throughout the First World War, families would hang blue service stars in their windows to indicate that their loved ones were serving in the war effort. By 1918, it became common practice to pin a gold star over the blue star to indicate that their service member had died. President Wilson also authorized mothers to wear a gold star on the traditional black mourning band to signify their loss was war-related in 1918.

During the Second World War, service flags and what they represented were standardized and codified by Congress. In April of 1945, a non-profit group calling themselves “Gold Star Wives of America” filed incorporation paperwork signed by Eleanor Roosevelt. Less than two years later Congress approved the design, manufacture and distribution of the Gold Star Label Pin to be presented to surviving family members of those who died in that conflict.GoldStarWives_14-Digitalv2

Though service flags and Gold Star pins fell out of favor in the sixties, in 1973 the Army approved a lapel pin to be worn by those who lost their lives while serving on active duty but not in combat operations.

The rise of patriotism and pride in service after September 11 brought about a resurgence of the use of both the blue and gold stars in flags, bumper and window stickers and lapel pins.

But it’s not enough, said Engeman, who manages the Survivor Outreach Services program for the Army.

During World War II, more than 16 million people served in the war effort overseas, and most of the country supported the war effort through rationing, victory gardens, war bonds, and other public displays of support.

Only 2.5 million service members have deployed during the war on terror; less that 1 percent of the American population. While service flags can be readily found in windows in the residential areas on military installations, it’s rare to see them in mainstream America.

To help raise awareness, the Army has produced a series of public service announcements describing the significance of Gold Star pins. The PSAs will be released over the course of the year, to expand awareness efforts beyond a single day proclaimed by Congress.goldstar_poster

The Army, recognizing that families who have paid the ultimate sacrifice deserve our respect, gratitude and the very best we can provide, created Survivor Outreach Services to provide long-term support services and family case management for surviving families. A program in the G9, Family and MWR Services Directorate of the Installation Management Command, SOS is integral to the Army’s support system and casualty notification office.

“Our support service coordinators and financial counselors are dedicated to helping survivors from all eras understand–and apply for–the benefits they’re entitled to” said Hal Snyder, chief of IMCOM’s Wounded and Fallen Support Services Office. “We also help them stay connected to the Army family for as long as they desire.”

SOS currently supports more than 55,900 surviving military family members, and is spearheading the effort to raise awareness through the PSAs.

“We’re committed to our survivors,” said Lt. Gen. Mike Ferriter, IMCOM commander. “So educating the public on the meaning behind the gold star pins is simply another way to reaffirm that we honor and understand the sacrifices they’ve made for our country.”

This article is courtesy of the Gold Star Pins.org – a U.S. Army website.

 

Long Delayed Medal of Honor Awarded to 24 Recipients

President Obama fastens the Medal of Honor around the neck of Staff Sgt. Melvin Morris in a ceremony Tuesday.

President Obama fastens the Medal of Honor around the neck of Staff Sgt. Melvin Morris during a White House ceremony March 18, 2014.

Far from the Vietnam jungles where Melvin Morris served two tours, the Army staff sergeant stood on a stage at the White House Tuesday accompanied by President Barack Obama who awarded him the Medal of Honor.

President Obama noted in his opening remarks to the room packed with family members and military that the 72-year-old Florida resident Morris was one of the first Green Berets.

Staff Sgt. Melvin Morris as he listens to the citation begin read describing his valor in Vietnam why he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Staff Sgt. Melvin Morris as he listens to the citation begin read describing his valor in Vietnam why he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

In a ceremony that lasted more than an hour, Morris was recognized for his valor on Sept. 17, 1969, near Chi Lang. Then-Staff Sgt. Morris led an advance across enemy lines to retrieve a fallen comrade and single-handedly destroyed an enemy force that had pinned down his battalion from a series of bunkers. Staff Sgt. Morris was shot three times as he ran back toward friendly lines with the American casualties, but did not stop until he reached safety.

In 1970, Morris received the nation’s second-highest honor for valor, the Distinguished Service Cross. But like the 23 others recognized in the March 18, 2014 Medal of Honor ceremony, it was determined that Morris deserved the highest honor, the Medal of Honor, but had been denied that originally due to discrimination.

You can read more about Morris in an Army News Service article and watch the White House ceremony.

Here is the list of all 24 Medal of Honor recipients:

Living veterans honored at the ceremony:

  • Specialist Four Santiago J. Erevia
  • Staff Sergeant Melvin Morris
  • Sergeant First Class Jose Rodela

Veterans honored posthumously at today’s ceremony:

  • World War II veterans
    • Private Pedro Cano
    • Private Joe Gandara
    • Private First Class Salvador J. Lara
    • Sergeant William F. Leonard
    • Staff Sergeant Manuel V. Mendoza
    • Sergeant Alfred B. Nietzel
    • First Lieutenant Donald K. Schwab
  • Korean War veterans
    • Corporal Joe R. Baldonado
    • Corporal Victor H. Espinoza
    • Sergeant Eduardo C. Gomez
    • Private First Class Leonard M. Kravitz
    • Master Sergeant Juan E. Negron
    • Master Sergeant Mike C. Pena
    • Private Demensio Rivera
    • Private Miguel A. Vera
    • Sergeant Jack Weinstein
  • Vietnam War veterans
    • Sergeant Candelario Garcia
    • Specialist Four Leonard L. Alvarado
    • Staff Sergeant Felix M. Conde-Falcon
    • Specialist Four Ardie R. Copas
    • Specialist Four Jesus S. Duran

You can read more about the 24 Medal of Honor recipients and the White House ceremony here.

President Obama comforts the widow of Sergeant Jack Weinstein as the citation describing his bravery in combat is read during the posthumous presentation of his Medal of Honor.

President Obama comforts the widow of Sergeant Jack Weinstein as the citation describing his bravery in combat is read during the posthumous presentation of his Medal of Honor.

A Photographic Tribute to the American Soldier and Family

Curator Cyma Rubin stands next to a Civil War photograph of a family that captivated a school boy whose father was serving in Iraq.

Curator Cyma Rubin stands next to a Civil War photograph of a family of a father, mother, three children and a dog, that captivated a current day school boy whose father was serving in Iraq.

A powerful, photographic tribute to American soldiers and Marines from the Civil War to the Iraq War opens Tuesday at the St. Petersburg Museum of History.

From the opening panel of the American Soldier exhibit – you immediately see the difference. The photo of the Union soldier from Civil War is staged in a photographer’s studio. He poses with his rifle. The Iraq War soldier is in an urban warfare setting, his finger poised on the trigger of his AK-47.

The opening panel to the 116 photographic exhibit curated by Cyma Rubin.

The opening panel to the 116 photographic exhibit curated by Cyma Rubin.

But there are similarities as the curator, Cyma Rubin, points out, “It’s the same face just a different uniform.”

The young faces of war stare back at you, some hauntingly, from among the 116 photographs.

Rubin also included photos showing the families because they served too.

There’s a black and white print from the Civil War shows a father, mother three children and a dog at a Union campsite. Rubin said it captivated a little boy during his class tour because that boy’s father was serving in Iraq at the time.

She said that interlude made the three years and 4,000 photographs she reviewed to create the exhibition all worthwhile.

“I had this concept, I always work from a concept, of showing the humanity of the American Soldier,” Rubin said. “This is not a blood and guts exhibition. It’s humanity, camaraderie, family, humor, heroism, and of course the ultimate sacrifice in some cases.”

Retired Major Scott Macksam stands next to his favorite photo of the exhibition which he visited two years ago and worked to bring to the Tampa Bay area.

Retired Major Scott Macksam stands next to his favorite photo of the exhibition which he visited two years ago and worked to bring to the Tampa Bay area.

Retired Major Scott Macksam first saw the exhibit in Louisville. It so moved him that he made it his mission to bring the American Soldier exhibit to the bay area where he’s a trustee at the St. Petersburg Museum of History.

His favorite photo is a close-up photo of a Marine who had battled for two days and nights in the Marshall Islands during World War II.

Another WWII photo is the favorite of the museum’s education director, Nevin Sitler.

It shows an unidentified soldier holding a sole surviving infant on an island where the Japanese soldiers and their families committed suicide rather than be captured by Americans. That soldier is his wife’s grandfather. They have a copy of the picture at their home.

The museum's education director, Nevin Sitler, holds the photo of his wife's grandfather who holding an infant, the sole survivor after the Japanese soldiers and their families committed suicide for fear of capture by Americans.

The museum’s education director, Nevin Sitler, holds the photo of his wife’s grandfather who holding an infant, the sole survivor after the Japanese soldiers and their families committed suicide for fear of capture by Americans.

“It’s awesome as a historian to be able to put provenance and name to the face because right now it’s just an unknown soldier,” Sitler said.

As the curator, Rubin looked for rare photos that hadn’t been seen much, but she also chose a few iconic pictures like the photo of flag draped coffins returning from the Iraq War that the White House did not want released to the public.

And there are some surprises like a photo of female volunteers in the Union Army. Rubin said the women’s troop was made up of debutantes and prostitutes and no one could tell the difference. The American Soldier Photography Exhibit opens March 18 and runs through July 13, 2014 at the St. Petersburg Museum of History, 335 Second Ave. N.E. St. Petersburg, FL.

You can listen to the radio version of this story on WUSF News.

A photograph of one of the Iraq well fires during the Gulf War is another favorite of museum education director, Nevin Sitler, a veteran Air Force fireman.

A photograph of one of the Iraq well fires during the Gulf War is another favorite of museum education director, Nevin Sitler, a veteran Air Force fireman.

Curator Cyma Rubin chose rarely seen photos for the exhibit, with a few only a few iconic exceptions such as this photo of flag-draped coffins that the White House did not want released to the public.

Curator Cyma Rubin chose rarely seen photos for the exhibit, with a few only a few iconic exceptions such as this photo of flag-draped coffins that the White House did not want released to the public.

A soldier salutes in remembrance of 9/11.

A soldier salutes in remembrance of 9/11.

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France to Flanders: British World War One Diaries Go Online

Wounded British soldiers in a trench during World War I. (Library of Congress)

Wounded British soldiers in a trench during World War I. (Library of Congress)

The British National Archives is digitizing 1.5 million pages of unit diaries from World War One. Their effort is twofold: to preserve the original documents that are being worn out after 45 years of public use, and to offer the WWI documents online.

OperationWarDiary.org was developed to enlist “citizen historians” to help with revealing the stories from the Western Front: Working together we will make previously inaccessible information available to academics, researchers and family historians worldwide, leaving a lasting legacy for the centenary of the First World War. 

There’s a 10 minute video to watch if you’re interested with helping to go through the diaries. From France to Flanders, the first batch of diaries gives “the real-time account of the first three cavalry and the first seven infantry divisions who were part of the first wave of British army troops deployed.

Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day Marked by Veterans

Battleship Row, as seen by Japanese pilot during the attack.

Battleship Row, as seen by Japanese pilot during the attack.

Two of the nation’s oldest veterans – who fought in the Pacific 70 years ago – were among those in attendance at Pearl Harbor  to mark the Japanese attack  Dec. 7, 1941.

Stars and Stripes reporter Leo Shane III writes:

It’s a heartwarming photo op, but also a sign of the nation’s fading ties to the Greatest Generation and a warning to the Sept. 11 generation that the mantra of “never forget” grows more difficult as the years pass.

The veterans — Richard Overton and Elmer Hill — weren’t at the attack in Hawaii, but passed through the ruined Navy base later on their way to the fight. They survived kamikaze planes and sluggish, island-clearing combat to return home and build new lives in separate parts of Texas.

An aerial view during the Pearl Harbor attack.

An aerial view during the Pearl Harbor attack.

President Barack Obama signed a proclamation for Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day which reads in part:
In remembrance of Pearl Harbor and to defend our Nation against future attacks, scores of young Americans enlisted in the United States military. In battle after battle, our troops fought with courage and honor. They took the Pacific theater island by island, and eventually swept through Europe, liberating nations as they progressed. Because of their extraordinary valor, America emerged from this test as we always do — stronger than ever before.

We also celebrate those who served and sacrificed on the home front — from families who grew Victory Gardens or donated to the war effort to women who joined the assembly line alongside workers of every background and realized their own power to build a brighter world. Together, our Greatest Generation overcame the Great Depression, and built the largest middle class and strongest economy in history.

You can read the full proclamation here.

An Iraq War Vet: My Name Is on a Monument, Am I a Hero?

The Cape Coral, FL Iraq War Monument.

The Cape Coral, FL Iraq War Monument.

By Alex Cook, an Army veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars

My name is on a monument that claims I’m a hero.

Cape Coral just dedicated a new Iraq War monument on Veteran’s Day.  I avoided the dedication ceremony, worried about just how publicly my heroism might be extolled, but snuck over with my girlfriend on a quiet Saturday afternoon to check it out.  The large stone star, emblazoned with the words “Iraq War Heroes” sits in the shadow of even larger monuments dedicated to the veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.  The top of the star is lined with dog tags bearing the names of local veterans from every service who deployed to Iraq.  I had to gently brush aside a rose someone had placed over the names to find mine.  And there I am, among the “heroes.”

How does it make me feel?

Honored: No matter what I feel about my military service, the merits of the war, or whether I was right or wrong to enlist, a group of people got together to say “thanks” and call me a hero.  They don’t know what I experienced over there.  They don’t need to.  The fact that I went is enough for them.

Hypocritical: Who am I to have my name emblazoned on a monument which dubs me a “hero?”  I didn’t have a combat job.  I don’t recall doing anything very heroic.  I faced a little danger, I did my job, and I couldn’t wait to get home.  I’ve spent way too much whining about it since.  So many others are more deserving of the title “hero” than I.

Alex's tag on the Iraq War Heroes monument.

Alex’s tag on the Iraq War Heroes monument.

Nostalgic:  I always knew I’d never miss my days as a soldier.  I can’t say I miss them, exactly, but fond memories managed to slip in here and there.  I got to know some amazing people.  I had some unique adventures.  I’m amazed that I can get a little misty-eyed thinking about GOOD times I had in the army.  But I can and do.

Hopeful: I remember how I felt when I first exited the army.  I thought everyone could tell I wasn’t a normal person, that I didn’t belong in civilian society.  I tried to suppress every emotion and memory from that time, trying to “start over.”  The past few years have seen slow progress as I struggled to accept and then embrace my past.  Now I can see my name on a monument of heroes and not be filled with rage and disgust.  I went to war for my country.  Not everyone can say that.  And if that’s something worth honoring, I’m ok with that.

When last I wrote for Off the Base, I described a PTSD treatment study that I took part in. I wrote my entries from my little brother’s old room in my parent’s house.  I was unemployed.  Some days I didn’t leave the bedroom, let alone the house.  I’d come a long way in coming to grips with my military service, but I still had a long way to go.

The monument is being covered replicated "dog tags" with the names of Iraq War veterans.

The monument is being covered replicated “dog tags” with the names of Iraq War veterans.

I’m writing this entry from the little place I share with my loving and supportive girlfriend, just a short bike ride from my full time TV news job.  I’m living a pretty good life.  I’m not defined by my time in the army, but it’s very much a part of me.  I’m not perfectly happy, but who is?  I have my dark days.  I get past them.  To my fellow vets, who may be struggling to come to grips with your service: keep moving forward while accepting and embracing what you’ve been a part of.  It’s not easy.  It gets easier.  Let people love you and don’t give up.  Keep living.

And if someone wants to put your name on a monument, go ahead and let them.  It’s pretty cool.

Alex Cook is a former intern with WUSF Public Media who now works for WINK in Ft. Myers, FL. Here’s a link to his experience as a veteran as told to his current employer http://www.winknews.com/Local-Florida/2013-07-17/Iraq-War-Memorial-breaks-ground-in-Cape-Coral#.Uou-YMSsiSo .

The new Iraq War monument is located at the Four Mile Cove Eco Park, Cape Coral, FL and is still taking the names of local Iraq War veterans. Details on how to add a name to the monument are available on the website: http://iraqwarmonumentcapecoralfl.com/.

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