Lest We Forget: D-Day June 6, 1944 – My Father Was There

June 6, 1944 D-Day. Credit: National Archives

My dad was in the U.S. Navy and a “motor mac” (motor machinist mate) on a landing craft delivering troops to the beaches during the first two days of the invasion.

Robert J. O’Brien never told his family, especially his daughters, about that D-Day. That is, until I married a Navy veteran.

Robert Joseph O’Brien as a young sailor. The red stripe on his uniform indicates he’s part of the engineering department.

My dad shared a few of his memories with my husband. That’s how I learned he was there on the beaches of Normandy. Toward the end of his life, my dad agreed to sit down with me so I could record his thoughts.

He was a man of few words who could say more with a look, a smile or a nod.

He was even more so when talking about WWII. His description was sparse – except for his admiration for the pilots and paratroopers who blackened the sky above his craft. And for the men he delivered to the shores of Normandy.

He saw no heroism – no extraordinary human effort in what he did. In fact, his favorite phrase was “I was just doing my job.”

So, today I pay tribute to all who were there and did their job during such a pivotal moment in history.

And a daughter’s love for a special dad who after two days of facing combat was assigned to the burial detail on the beach – the hardest job of all – that he did with dignity and respect toward the fallen.

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When Veterans Die Alone, These Volunteers Step Up

The Marine Corps League of Clearwater, FL were responsible for holding the May Unattended Ceremony at Bay Pines National Cemetery in St. Petersburg, Fl.

Memorial Day is set aside to remember those who died in military service. But a group of military veterans in Florida works all year to commemorate their comrades who died with no family by their side.

Vietnam-era veteran Clifford Leo Bisek died alone, while sitting outside the Tampa motel room where he lived. He had no close family members and no friends nearby.

But a group of strangers made sure he received a proper farewell.

They’re among a group of veterans who hold small monthly ceremonies at the Bay Pines National Cemetery in St. Petersburg, Fla. On the first Tuesday of every month, they gather to pay tribute to their fellow veterans who have passed away without loved ones.

Marine veteran Bob Cannon – volunteer organizer of the monthly ceremonies – is the first to arrive and last to leave the Bay Pines outdoor columbarium.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that everybody gets a good welcome and send off,” said Marine veteran Bob Cannon, who has organized every service for nearly two decades at Bay Pines. “I’m a Vietnam veteran. When I came back, I had not a very good welcome home.”

Under federal law, every eligible veteran is entitled to a military funeral if the family requests it. When there are no relatives present, the veteran can still be interred at a VA cemetery, but without an individual ceremony. The agency calls it an “Unattended Interment.”

There were 10 such burials in April at Bay Pines. The VA’s National Cemeteries Administration does not track the number of unattended interments nationally, but it operates more than 130 sites throughout the country.

A soldier, sailor, and local hero

Clifford Bisek, a Vietnam Era veteran, in 2010 when he chased a robber off with his cane. Photo courtesy of the Tampa Bay Times.

At Cliff Bisek’s interment, two VA employees carried the ashes of the 72-year-old veteran in a rectangular metal box. Cemetery director Eugenia Simmons held it close to her heart, as she and cemetery worker Terry Clark double checked the paperwork. They slide the box into the niche at the outdoor columbarium.

Simmons signed a form and — in a final gesture — patted the granite stone covering Bisek’s niche.

“Whenever I do an interment, somebody has to say goodbye,” Simmons said.

Bisek was a sergeant in the Army during the Vietnam Era and later served in the Navy. Eight years ago, the Tampa resident briefly became a local hero when he foiled a drug store robbery by chasing away the thief with his cane.

“Safety of the other people comes before mine,” Bisek told the Tampa Tribune at the time. “It has been in my system practically all my life.”

In March, Bisek died from heart disease. Inside his motel room, police discovered old paperwork from the VA, so the county medical examiner sent Bisek’s cremated remains to Bay Pines.

Bay Pines Cemetery Director Eugenia Simmons bids a final farewell to Clifford Bisek during his interment in April. There was no ceremony or family that day.

Simmons said because Florida has so many retirees, it’s common for veterans to die with no family or no relatives nearby.

“We give them a dignified burial,” Simmons said, “and then once the cremated remains are placed, we send information to the family so they know how to locate their loved one.”

‘We’ll always be here’

A half dozen local veterans service organizations volunteer at Bay Pines on a rotating basis to conduct the monthly service for the unattended interments. At the most recent service, the send-off began with a motorcycle “ride-by” with veteran Randall McNabb as ride captain. More than two dozen riders showed up.

“I love these guys,” McNabb said. “They spend their own time and their own dime to get out here and stand for these veterans.”

A bugler plays Taps at the May 2018 Unattended Ceremony where more than two dozen motorcycle riders and member the Clearwater Marine Corps League participated in the ceremony at Bay Pines National Cemetery.

The ceremony is brief. It includes a prayer, the presentation of the colors, and the reading of the name of each veteran who was intered that month. Each name is followed by the ringing of a bell – a Navy tradition. There’s a three-volley gun salute and the playing of Taps.

Sharply dressed in a pressed white shirt decorated with ribbons and medals from past service, Color Guard commander Bill Cona oversaw the service. It’s important to him to be at the cemetery for his comrades, just as he hopes someone will be there for him.

“I don’t really think about them not having anyone around because we’re here, and we’ll always be here,” Cona said,  choking up a little.

Typically at military funerals, the color guard presents a folded American Flag to the veteran’s family. But at these ceremonies, the flag is symbolically handed to a volunteer. Then, it will be used again at next month’s ceremony.

Watch a video of the Bay Pines ceremony here.

The folding of the American Flag and presentation to a volunteer – standing in for family – is part of the ceremony.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

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2018 MacDill AFB AirFest Offers Event App

Blue Angels

The U.S. Navy Blue Angels

The U.S. Navy Blue Angels will streak across Tampa Bay skies this weekend, May 12-13, as the Good Year Blimp motors along at a slower pace for the 2018 AirFest.

Admission is open to the public, free and with free parking at MacDill Air Force Base, 3108 N. Boundary Blvd., Tampa, FL.

To make it easier to plan your visit, MacDill crews created an AirFest App. You can download the MacDill AirFest App or a visitor’s guide for transportation, parking, show schedules and ground displays.

“We get to give back to this community that supports us so much. We get to basically show them virtually everything the Air Force does in a pretty little package – in a two day period,” said Colonel April Vogel, commander of MacDill AFB and the 6th Air Mobility Wing.

This Saturday and Sunday, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., you can watch the Blue Angels, an F-22 Raptor Demo and Special Operations Para-Commandos Flag Jump plus a wide variety of aircraft performance including a P-51, a single-seat fighter known as a Mustang.

Visitors also can explore 18 different aircraft on the tarmac from a Cessna to a super-tanker and even experience what it’s like aboard the U.S. Navy Nimitz through virtual reality.

Vogel said virtually every airman has worked to make the free community event possible.

“Putting on an airshow is quite a monumental task. So, we’ve been working on this for better part of a year mostly because we want to make sure it’s as great as event as last time,” Vogel said.

Food vendors will be set up as well tents with air conditioning to protect visitors from Florida’s heat.

VA Acting Secretary Issues Message To Workforce

The following message comes directly from the Department of Veterans Affairs Acting Secretary Robert Wilkie:

Robert Wilkie, photo courtesy of the Department of Defense

I’m deeply grateful to President Trump for the opportunity to serve with you and for America’s Veterans.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the “War to end all Wars”.  One hundred years ago, my great grandfather left the comfort of teaching law at Ole Miss to join the 320th Field Artillery Regiment of the 82nd Infantry Division assembling at Camp Gordon, Georgia. Across the cantonment from his regiment was an infantry outfit whose muster roll included a reluctant scratch farmer from Pall Mall, Tennessee, by way of Buncombe County, North Carolina, by the name of Alvin York.

In another part of the country was my wife’s grandfather, who had probably never ventured beyond three or four counties in North and South Carolina, but by the time he was 18, he was marching up the Champs Elysees into the terrible battle of the Meuse Argonne.

Captain A.D. Somerville, Sergeant Alvin York and Private Onslow Bullard, ordinary Americans called upon to do extraordinary things. It is their descendants whom we are honored to serve—millions of ordinary Americans who have answered a special call for us and the world.

At my Pentagon swearing in, I was proud when the officiating officer noted that I had been born in khaki diapers. I have been privileged to see this military life from many angles—as a dependent, as the son of a gravely wounded combat soldier, as an officer in two services—the Navy and the Air Force– and as a senior leader in the Pentagon. Being with you today is the culmination of a lifetime of watching those who have borne the battle.

I do not know how long I will be privileged to serve as the acting secretary, but let me tell you about my philosophy.

Customer service is the key—but not necessarily in the way you might think. Customer service must start with each other—not talking at each other but with each other across all office barriers and across all compartments. If we don’t listen to each other we won’t be able to listen to our Veterans and their families.

We must have a bottom up organization. The energy must flow from you who are closest to those we are sworn to serve. It is from you that the ideas we carry to the Congress, the VSOs and to America’s Veterans will come.  Anyone who sits in this chair and tells you he has the answers is in the wrong business.

This is a noble calling. We have a solemn responsibility to Veterans—not just today, but in the months and years to come, to set the standard for the millions coming into our VA and for the millions who will join the ranks down the years.

That is our important and nonnegotiable mission. The president and Congress support us, and I’m honored to help lead this organization.  I look forward to meeting as many of you as possible. I value your thoughts and insights as we improve our cepartment (department) for the challenges in the years ahead.

Thank you and God bless.

50th Anniversary Of The Vietnam War Observances

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The National Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. Photo courtesy: VA Blog

The National Vietnam War Veterans Day is March 29 with the 50th anniversary being observed this year. Hundreds of commemorative events are listed nationwide. Some Tampa Bay remembrances are listed below.

TAMPA – Green Beret and decorated Vietnam Veteran Bill “Hawk” Albracht tops the special plans for the Hillsborough Veterans Memorial Park ceremony remembering those who served in the war. The observance begins Saturday, March 24, 2018, at 10 a.m. at the park, 3602 Highway 301, Tampa, FL.

The presentations will include remembrances of Gold Medal Recipients, War Dogs and “The Last Patrol” presentation. Veterans and civilians are invited for a morning of reverence and camaraderie.

ST. PETERSBURG – The Bay Pines VA Healthcare System will observe National Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Day throughout the week of March 26 – 30, 2018,

Vietnam Veterans will have the opportunity to receive a special commemorative lapel pin at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center, the Lee County Healthcare Center, and the Community Based Outpatient Clinics located in Bradenton, Naples, Palm Harbor, Port Charlotte, Saint Petersburg, Sarasota and Sebring. Living U.S. Veterans who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces at any time during the period of November 1, 1955 to May 15, 1975, regardless of location are eligible to receive one pin. Proof of service is not required. Former service members can simply identify as a Vietnam Veteran to receive a pin.

  • March 26 – 30, 2018 (All Week) | 8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Pins will be available for pickup at the primary check-in desks at all CBOCs and at the main volunteer/welcome desk located on the first floor of the Lee County Healthcare Center.
  • Monday, March 26, 2018 | 9:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m. VA and MyVA Community Engagement Board leaders will distribute pins at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center’s Lakeside Clinic (building 102), Veterans Canteen (building 1), primary entrances of the hospital building (building 100), and mental health center (building 111).
  • Thursday, March 29, 2018 | 11:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. Pins will be distributed at the Bay Pines Fisher House open house event. The house is located on the campus of the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center.

TAMPA – At a commemoration ceremony, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL) will honor Vietnam War Veterans and hand out commemorative lapel pins Tuesday, March 27th at 10 a.m. at the Hillsborough Veterans Resource Center, 3602 Highway 301 North, Tampa, FL. Open to family and friends. If you plan to participate contact Dewayne L. Mallory at Dewayne.Mallory@mail.house.gov .

Patriot Plaza at night Steven Brooke - September

Patriot Plaza at night. Photo by Steven Brooke courtesy of The Patterson Foundation.

SARASOTA – Retired Gen. Hugh Shelton, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is the featured speaker at a celebration of Vietnam Veterans set Thursday, March 29, 2018 at 9:30 a.m. at Patriot Plaza, Sarasota National Cemetery, 9810 State Road 72, Sarasota, FL. Music will be provided by the First Brass of Sarasota along with contributions from Alpha Company Vietnam Brotherhood and Military Officers of America, Sarasota Chapter. Contact Ellwood Schiffman bandw@comcast.net for details.

 

Transition Help Without The DoD PowerPoint Slides

Soldiers line up to check in for the CivilianJobs.com job fair sponsored by the Fort Campbell, Ky., Army Career and Alumni Program office. Hundreds of transitioning service members, veterans, and their family members took part in the event.

My thanks to Barrett Bogue, Student Veterans of America vice president of Public Relations and Digital Engagement, for passing along a new website focused on transitioning service members.

While the issues covered in Rebootcamp may sound similar to the TAP classes you sat through, don’t worry – there’s no “death by PowerPoint” here. The site includes edutainment videos, informative how-tos, custom tools, and inspirational stories about veterans.

Education, employment and entrepreneurship are the cornerstones of the new site, Rebootcamp, produced by the Military Times. The strength of the website; the many partners that contribute.

A huge chunk — maybe even a majority — of the information, advice and other content that you’ll see comes from more than a dozen partners, spanning veterans service organizations, government agencies and the private sector.

A few of the recommended articles:

Another resource to check out, Project Transition USA, a non-profit organization that shows service members how to use LinkedIn to help transitioning military find meaningful careers in the civilian world.

75 Employers At Military Spouses, Veterans Job Expo

PHOTO COURTESY: Visit Tampa Bay

In addition to the job opportunities – military spouses and veterans who register prior to the event will have a chance to win free tickets to the Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Ottawa Senators hockey game.

The Hiring Our Heroes Expo is scheduled Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. at Amalie Arena, 401 Channelside Dr, Tampa, FL.

However, doors open at 9 a.m. for those interested in the free, Career Connections employment workshop to help build your resume and translate military skills into civilian skills. There are additional resources for connecting with veteran-friendly employers, digital networking and job search techniques.

Expo sponsors, in addition to the Lightning, are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, Lockheed Martin and USAA. Employers range from large, national companies to smaller, regional businesses.

Since 2011, Hiring Our Heroes has helped hundreds of thousands of veterans and military spouses find meaningful employment through more than 1,100 job fairs in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and on military installations overseas.

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