Medal of Honor Marine Backs Gold Star Memorial

Hershel "Woody" Williams said he is only the caretaker of the Medal of Honor, hanging around his neck, that it belongs to those who lost their lives protecting him on the Iwo Jima battlefield.

Hershel “Woody” Williams said he is only the caretaker of the Medal of Honor, hanging around his neck, that it belongs to those who lost their lives protecting him on the Iwo Jima battlefield.

It took four hours, six flame-throwers and the lives of two fellow Marines, but Cpl. Hershel “Woody” Williams knocked out seven Japanese pillboxes on Iwo Jima February 23, 1945.

It was his fourth day on the Pacific island.

Williams said six members of his original special weapons unit had been killed and he was the sole survivor.

He recalled an officer calling him and others together in a shell crater. The officer asked for suggestions on how to knockout the machine gun fire coming from Japanese several fortified, concrete bunkers that had the Marines pinned down.

Williams volunteered to attack the “pillboxes” using a flamethrower.

For his conspicuous gallantry and risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty, Williams was awarded the Medal of Honor.

“This medal, I have claimed from the very beginning, it really doesn’t belong to me,” Williams said. “I wear it in their honor. I am just a caretaker of this medal because if it hadn’t been for those individuals willing to give their life, and the other individuals willing to protect me, I wouldn’t be here.”

Williams said during that four-hour battle, he was never touched. But two of the four Marines assigned to protect his solo assault on the pillboxes were killed doing so.

He shared those details with me and another reporter prior to his presentation at Tampa’s Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy. The students there have vowed to build a memorial to honor Gold Star families.

Williams has dedicated himself to building a Gold Star family memorial in each of the 50 states.

Hershel Williams cheers on students at the Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy as they applauded his $5,000 donation toward their effort to build a Gold Star Family Memorial.

Hershel Williams cheers on students at the Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy as they applauded his $5,000 donation toward their effort to build a Gold Star Family Memorial.

So, he visited the boy’s academy to lend the support of his foundation, Hershel “Woody” Williams Medal of Honor Foundation, and present them with a $5,000 check toward their $40,000 goal.

In turn, the Boys Preparatory Academy at Franklin Middle School presented the 90-year-old veteran with a special lanyard recognizing his service in WWII, his continued support of Gold Star families and his contribution to their effort to build a Gold Star Memorial.

Tears welled in the eyes of the battle-tested Marine who asked for a moment to compose himself before thanking the students, teachers and others in the auditorium. He wiped his tears away as he walked back to his seat on stage.

Shortly afterward, Williams joined several of the students, military representatives and school officials at a ceremonial ground breaking.

They plan to build the memorial in front of the historic brick Franklin Middle School, 3915 21st Ave., Tampa, FL.

 

The ceremonial groundbreaking for a Gold Star Family Memorial outside Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy, 3915 21st Ave., Tampa.

The ceremonial groundbreaking for a Gold Star Family Memorial outside Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy, 3915 21st Ave., Tampa.

 

 

Researching Military Sexual Assault Prevention

Diane Price-Herndl, chair of the USF Women and Gender Studies and the Women's Status Committee.

Diane Price-Herndl, chair of the USF Women and Gender Studies and the Women’s Status Committee.

One in every five women and one in every 100 men have told the VA that they experienced sexual trauma while serving in the military.

Those numbers have both the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs working on solutions for treatment and the prevention of Military Sexual Trauma (MST).

The head of the Women and Gender Studies and the Women’s Status Committee at the University of South Florida, Diane Price-Herndl, thinks her academic expertise can help with healing and prevention.

“This is a place where academics have not done our due diligence,” Price-Herndl said. “We’ve got men and women in the service who are suffering. And they are suffering from things that ostensibly my discipline studies and works on.”

She said Women and Gender Studies has done a lot of research on sexual assault in the general population that might prove helpful for the problem in the military.

Credit: Iowa VA

Credit: Iowa VA

So, Price-Herndl is starting that discussion at a one-day symposium on Military Sexual Trauma planned April 8 at USF Marshall Student Center in Tampa.

The idea is to share strategies and research across disciplines and agencies. Researchers from Bay Pines VA and James A. Haley VA will join USF academics from nursing, theater, and other departments. Each will present their current research on MST and there will be a chance to brainstorm.

One session will explore a project Price-Herndl is developing, The Witness Project. It hopes to archive and use the written and oral stories of military sexual trauma survivors as teaching tools for prevention programs developed for the Department of Defense.

Additionally, a round-table is planned at the conclusion of the symposium will take up the problem of sexual assault among the general population on college campuses.

For details on “USF Responds to Military Sexual Trauma: A Research Symposium,” contact Diane Price-Herndl at  priceherndl@usf.edu .

New Study Debunks 88 Percent Dropout Rate for Vets

D. Wayne Robinson, president of the Student Veterans of America, announces results from the Million Records Project at a news conference broadcast over the internet from George Washington University on March 24, 2014.

D. Wayne Robinson, president of the Student Veterans of America, announces results from the Million Records Project at a news conference broadcast over the internet from George Washington University on March 24, 2014.

Student veterans using their GI education benefits between 2002 and 2010 graduated from colleges and universities at the rate of 51.7 percent according to researchers with the Million Records Project.

That graduation rate is in stark contrast to the erroneous 88 percent dropout rate among student veterans that two national news organizations reported in 2012 using flawed data.

But ever since those erroneous reports by NBC News and the Huffington Post, the Student Veterans of America (SVA) organization has been fighting the misconception that student vets are at high risk of dropping out.

So the SVA teamed up with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Student Clearinghouse to start the Million Records Project with the goal of developing accurate data on student veteran graduation rates.

Researchers collected information from the VA on nearly 1 million student veterans and paired it with data from the National Student Clearinghouse. The data was scrubbed of any identifying information and then turned over to the SVA.

The Student Veterans of America President D. Wayne Robinson announced the project’s initial findings Monday.

“Fifty-one-point-seven percent of today’s veterans are completing their programs of study and we’re confident that this number will continue to grow as time passes and Post 9-11 GI Bill users have the opportunity to earn their degrees,” Robinson said. “I am very proud to report this number.”

He said the graduation percentage is similar to the general population which he finds remarkable considering the additional challenges that student vets have to handle.

In addition to worrying about academics, 47 percent of student veterans have families and many hold fulltime jobs. Additionally, many Reservists and National Guard members may have their academic year interrupted by a deployment overseas.

Robinson pointed to the example of Kiersten Downs, now a doctoral student at the University of South Florida, who served four years in the Air Force and then joined the Air National Guard while attending college in New York.

“While pursuing her political science degree at Binghamton University in New York, Kiersten’s unit was mobilized just three weeks before finals,” Robinson said. “And so, she was forced to put her education on hold to deploy.”

The Million Records Project is not over, instead, this was just the first of several reports. Future research hopes to look at specific programs and their success at helping student veterans reintegrate and excel  in higher education.

A KC-135 Flight Through the Eyes of a Military Wife

By Jasmine Thomas

MacDill Air Force Base is hosting its annual AirFest show this Saturday and Sunday. As a preview for the event, members of the media were invited to a ride-along flight on a KC-135 Stratotanker as it completed a training refueling mission.

I boarded the massive plane as both a reporter and Air Force wife whose husband is training to become an aviator. I hoped the Airfest “preview flight” would give me a hint as to what my husband will be doing one day.

A glimpse inside the cockpit of the KC-135 Stratotanker flown by the MacDill Air Force Base 6th Air Mobility Wing.

A glimpse inside the cockpit of the KC-135 Stratotanker with co-pilot Capt. Joseph Brzozowske with the MacDill Air Force Base 6th Air Mobility Wing.

I stepped into the dark cylindrical-shaped cabin area. The walls of the plane were lined with benches where the news media would be sitting. Three small windows dotted each wall while a loud constant humming filled the cabin. Military aircraft clearly weren’t designed with comfort in mind.

“We’re not an airline. So, it’s not gonna be as smooth as you’re probably used to. So, I apologize for any bumps, but I’ll do what I can. But really when it comes down to it, it’s getting the mission done today,” said Capt. Matt Swee, the KC-135 pilot.

His warning about takeoff makes me a little nervous. I don’t fly often, so, I tend to be uneasy when it comes to that.

I sat in the cockpit right behind Swee and his co-pilot Capt. Joseph Brzozowske. Before takeoff I ask, “How long have you guys been flying together?” Their response?

It was their first time. That made me a little anxious. But as Swee explained.

“That’s extremely common. We don’t have hard crews. We’re all trained exactly the same. And so you could show up and fly with someone you’ve never flown before, and everyone does it exactly the same way. And that’s intentional, standardization,” Swee said.

Okay, that made me feel much better. I’m well aware of how the Air Force likes to keep things standardized, so to see it being put to use in the cockpit was definitely comforting.

Soon after, the pilots taxied us to the runway. The sky was dark and cloudy as it rained, making my stomach churn with anxiety. I thought, ‘not exactly favorable weather we’re about to takeoff into.’

Despite this, the two captains positioned us for take-off, rapidly gaining speed before we were finally airborne into a sea of thick clouds and rain.

A look at the A-10 Warthog refueling from the boom operator's point of view.

A look at the A-10 Warthog refueling from the boom operator’s point of view.

Even though it was their first time flying together, Swee was right. He and Brzozowske seemed to be in sync as they flipped switches and adjusted other instruments.

We finally broke free from the turbulence of takeoff and leveled off into a serene blue sky.

Wow. The view from the cockpit was breathtaking. And to think, this is what my husband will get to see and do as part of his job.

At this point, it was safe to unbuckle myself from the jump-seat and walk into the cabin.

This wasn’t so bad after all. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to stand and walk around without falling over. And it suddenly got really chilly. I realize, a little too late, I should’ve brought a thicker jacket as we soar above 30,000 feet.

Before long, I got over the temperature drop when I saw a fleet of A-10 Warthogs approach. Cameras in hand, I and more than a dozen journalists lined up to snap photos and record video.

I finally got my chance to see them. Four Warthogs lined up side by side, seeming to hover in the air next to us. They were so close I could see the pilots clearly from my window. And the aircraft’s signature artwork on the side, the eyes and grinning mouth full of teeth, was just too cool, reminiscent of World War II fighters.

A-10 Warthog as seen from the cabin of the KC-135 Stratotanker.

A-10 Warthog as seen from the cabin of the KC-135 Stratotanker.

What was even cooler was having the chance to lie on my stomach next to the boom operator, Master Sgt. Nancy Primm. One by one, each jet approached us from underneath and aligned themselves just perfectly. Primm already had the boom extended as she worked to align it with the jet before finally making the connection.

That’s no easy task, but Primm knows how to calm nervous receiver pilots.

“Whenever I have a receiver come up, and you can tell they’re nervous, you can hear the pitch in their voice, and they let the jet fly them a little bit, I put on what I call my librarian voice,” Primm said. “And that is ‘Mac four, left right’, you know whatever I have to do because the more calm I can project to him or her who’s flying, that tends to work.”

Swee explained the danger of refueling in-flight, but said they have to do whatever it takes to get the mission done. Training flights like this one prepare pilots for refueling during combat and other missions.

“The aircraft is actually closer than you’d expect, 10-13 feet actually. And it’s going to be moving around a lot more than one might think. And we can feel every single movement that’s made in the back, we can feel that up front,” Swee said. “It turns the entire aircraft. So we’re constantly compensating for every movement that the receiver pilot makes, and every movement that the boom operator makes with the boom as she’s flying that around too.”

Admission to the air show is free and open to the public. The KC-135 and A-10 are only two of the aircrafts that will be on display.

Personally, I can now be easy having a much better idea of what my husband will be doing and what our Air Force is capable of. This is one experience I won’t soon forget.

You can listen to Jasmine Thomas’ report on WUSF News.

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.

Florida Vietnam Veteran to Receive Medal of Honor

Army veteran Melvin Morris will receive a delayed Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony this Tuesday. Photo courtesy: Army News Service.

Army veteran Melvin Morris will receive a delayed Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony this Tuesday. Photo courtesy: Army News Service.

Melvin Morris served two tours of duty in Vietnam, but because of his race he didn’t receive the Medal of Honor. Morris talks to NPR’s Rachel Martin about the award he’ll receive from President Obama.

You can listen to the interview, which aired March 16, 2014, on WUSF 89.7 FM.

Morris told Martin that he has no regrets.

“I am never angry about it. You know war is war and we do what we’re told to do and we don’t determine the outcome,” Morris said.

The former Army sergeant spoke with Martin from his home in Port St. John, FL.

He and is one of 24 veterans to be awarded the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony March 18, 2014. All but three of the awards are posthumous with  seven going to World War II veterans, nine to Korean War veterans, and eight to Vietnam War veterans.

First Class Army Sgt. Melvin Morris served 23 years including two tours in Vietnam. Photo courtesy: Army News Service.

First Class Army Sgt. Melvin Morris served 23 years including two tours in Vietnam. Photo courtesy: Army News Service.

Morris is one of the three living Vietnam veterans who will be present at the ceremony. He served with distinction for 23 years  in the United States Army.

And the military life agreed with Morris and his family reports Lisa Ferdinando for the Army News Service.

“I never regret not one day of being in the military. Not one. The bad days are good and the good days are good,” he said.

As a paratrooper and jumpmaster, Morris remembered fondly his time in the skies, “I was as high as I could go, and that was great, to hang out of the door of that aircraft.”

Morris left the Army for three years, but his devotion to duty and commitment to the nation were too strong and beckoned him back into the uniform.

“Call of duty, I just couldn’t get away from it. Military was in my blood and I wanted to go back,” Morris said. “I was 36 years old and started over as an E-4, which didn’t bother me. I’m Army. That’s it. I wanted to finish my career.”

You can read more about Morris’ service to his country and the day-long battle in a Vietnam jungle in the Army News Service.

Morris displayed the the “highest valor” but only received the Distinguished Service Cross because of his race. You can read the citation for his Distinguished Service Cross which is being upgraded to the Medal of Honor this week.

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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