A Student’s Graveside Eulogy For A WWII Soldier In France

Largo High School student Konner Ross reads her eulogy for Private Leo Chalcraft at his graveside at the Normandy American Cemetery in late June.

Largo High School student Konner Ross reads her eulogy for Private Leo Chalcraft at his graveside at the Normandy American Cemetery in late June.

Largo High School senior Konner Ross was one of 15 students selected for “The Normandy: Sacrifice for Freedom Albert H. Small Student & Teacher Institute silent hero project”. Fifteen teams of high school students and their teachers from around the country team up to research a soldier, sailor or airman from their home state, who is buried in Normandy.

The Normandy Institute program also includes an all-expenses paid trip to Normandy to visit important sites from WWII. It culminates with the teens writing a eulogy for their selected, “silent hero” and reading it aloud at their graveside at the Normandy American Cemetery.

Here is the eulogy Ross wrote for one of St. Petersburg’s fallen soldiers from World War II:

BY KONNER ROSS

Born into the Great Depression, Leo Kenneth Chalcraft lived in a family where his father had to work jobs like selling ice just to get by. Leo quit school after the fifth grade to go work as a gas station attendant.

He did not have an easy childhood. He lived in a town where the war was full throttle. St. Petersburg, Florida was a place where many soldiers trained to go overseas.

Private Chalcraft, a black panther in the 66th Infantry Division, was only 19 years old when he died in the sinking of the Leopoldville – a story almost too horrible and tragic to believe.

The Leopoldville was a Belgium transport ship headed toward Cherbourg, France on Dec. 24, 1944. The soldiers destined for the Battle of the Bulge. (The ship was hit by a German torpedo.)

Five miles from the shore the Belgium crew was reported to have taken a soldier’s knife, cut a lifeboat and sailed away, laughing and joking in Flemish.

The crew left the soldiers on the ship. Leaving them to do the only thing they could do, wait for rescue or jump into the frigid water.

Leo and his fellow 66th members stood on a sinking ship, stuck in a situation that certainly called for panic, but they were absolutely calm coming together to sing the national anthem to honor their country one last time.

During a time of war, everyone expects to make sense of death. They understand that people die in war. They understand that many people they know probably will not come home. But they expect that those deaths will be fighting for the cause of freedom.

Leo never had his chance to fight for freedom. For the two-and-a-half hours the Leopoldville was just sitting on the water that Christmas Eve, most of the men could have been rescued. But they were not. Of the 2,235 infantry men on that boat over 700 men could do nothing but walk into the water, including Leo.

Leo once wrote in a letter to his mother, “I think that when this war is over, and I get back home, I will take a trip and come over to see what it looks like after it is fixed up and the lights are lit up.”

I am right now in a place where he wanted to go. He would have loved to see this spot right here. I’m able to see the things that he wanted to see. I’m able to see the lights lit up.

Somehow Leo, I hope you know that everyone remembers you.

You’ve not been forgotten. For the rest of her life, your mother never again celebrated Christmas. Your niece, Albert’s daughter, was close to your mother and knew all about you. Albert’s wife Charlotte still to this day preserves your possessions.

And now I know you and I’ll never forget you.

My brother passed away at the age of 19, the same age as Leo. I have never in my life felt anything so painful. The loss of someone so young, someone who will never experience or see so many things that you can, changes you forever. Everything reminds you of them.

And I know now that this is how Leo’s family felt. I know that they had never felt anything more painful and for that, I am forever heartbroken.

He wasn’t a fighter pilot, a paratrooper, any of those people that are glorified in the movies. He was what most soldiers in WWII were, normal men who were called to serve their country, men who were too young to know yet what they were going to do with their lives. They still traveled thousands of miles away from home to fight for this country. That’s what most of the men were.

And without those men, just like you Leo, we would never have won the war.

WWII Silent Heroes Brought To Life By Younger Generation

Omaha Beach in the background where Pvt. Leo Chalcraft is buried at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, on September 27, 2013, at Colleville-sur-Mer, France. (Photo by Warrick Page - American Battle Monuments Commission)

Omaha Beach in the background where Pvt. Leo Chalcraft is buried at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, on September 27, 2013, at Colleville-sur-Mer, France. (Photo by Warrick Page – American Battle Monuments Commission)

Army Private Leo Kenneth Chalcraft was a green-eyed, brown-haired teen from St. Petersburg, FL when he was killed in action in World War II.

It happened just six days after his 19th birthday.

Today, his grave is among the 9,387 military dead buried in France at the Normandy American Cemetery that overlooks Omaha Beach. There, 72 years ago this June 6, U.S. troops stormed the beaches on D-Day, marking the beginning of the end of World War II.

“He was so young and I feel like he didn’t get to experience a lot of his life,” said Konner Ross, a 17-year-old who lives in Largo, near St. Petersburg. Continue reading

Florida Teen Selected To Write Eulogy For WWII Silent Hero

leo k chalcraft

U.S. Army Private Leo K. Chalcraft drowned off the coast of Normandy Christmas Eve 1944, just weeks after turning 19.

The toughest writing assignment 16-year-old Konner Ross will have this year is to write a eulogy for a young man she’s never met. But there’s a part of him the Largo High School junior never forget – his green eyes.

“They have his wallet from when they found it on the beach and on his identification card, it says (he has) green eyes and brown hair,” Ross said. “I didn’t know he had green eyes until then. So, that seems like something small, but it was really cool to learn for some reason.”

Ross is describing U.S. Army Private Leo K. Chalcraft, a St. Petersburg native drafted to serve in World War II. He drowned off the coast of France in 1944 on Christmas Eve, just weeks after turning 19. Continue reading

West Point General Now Commands Saint Leo

Dr. William Lennox Jr., a former superintendent at the United States Military Academy at West Point, is the new CEO and president of Saint Leo University in San Antonio, FL.

Dr. William Lennox Jr., a former superintendent at the United States Military Academy at West Point, is the new CEO and president of Saint Leo University in San Antonio, FL.

Within the past week, Saint Leo University in northeastern Pasco County welcomed more than new college students to campus. The 126-year-old Benedictine bastion of learning has a new president after 18 years.

Retired U.S. Army Lt. General Dr. William Lennox Jr. stepped up July 1, 2015 to become the ninth Saint Leo president.

Lennox has a distinguished resume. A 35 year military career, a PhD in literature from Princeton, he served as West Point Superintendent from 2001-2006, and as a senior vice president at a Fortune 500 aerospace company for more than six years.

Now, he’s excited about being immersed back into college life and plans to walk the Saint Leo campus daily.

“I found at West Point that the students provide an energy for you and I’ve always managed, led by walking around, getting out and talking to folks,” Lennox said. “At West Point, I tried to get out of the office by 4 o’clock at the latest and go to practices or whatever was going on at the time. You learn so much more about your college or university when you do that.”

 Dr. William Lennox - the new president - helps carry a student's belongings to the dorm on "Move-In Day" Thursday at Saint Leo University. Renee Gerstein Saint Leo University


Dr. William Lennox – the new president – helps carry a student’s belongings to the dorm on “Move-In Day” Thursday at Saint Leo University.
Renee Gerstein Saint Leo University

It’s not that he doesn’t already know Saint Leo. Lennox served as a board member for more than seven years before he was asked to take over as president when Dr. Arthur Kirk retired.

“As a board member, I was at the 1,000 foot level. I’ve got to get down to the 100 foot level that the CEO-President operates at,” Lennox said.

One of his challenges is uniting the more than 16,000 Saint Leo students spread out between the Pasco County campus, online and distance learners at more than 40 education centers in the U.S.

“Saint Leo was on the cutting edge with online education and with the community centers they have around the country,” Lennox said. “If you haven’t been there, you can’t appreciate the enthusiasm. A lot of those students are a little bit older, some of them have jobs, some of them have struggled to get their education and Saint Leo means an awful lot to them.”

Many of those students are active-duty military or veterans that Lennox said share the same values as students attending the Catholic university.

 Faculty, students and staff are joined by Dr. William Lennox, Saint Leo University’s ninth president, for Move-In Day, August 20, at the Pasco County campus. Renee Gerstein Saint Leo University


Faculty, students and staff are joined by Dr. William Lennox, Saint Leo University’s ninth president, for Move-In Day, August 20, at the Pasco County campus.
Renee Gerstein Saint Leo University

“I guess I’m just attracted to universities or colleges that have strong missions and a great value system West Point and Saint Leo,” Lennox said. “Some of the values are excellence – community – respect – self-improvement – integrity – those are the kinds of values that the Benedictines have held for a long time and I think apply to the current situation in the world right now whether you’re an academic – or you’re a businessman or you’re, whatever you’re doing. I think they apply directly and we need more of them in this world right now.”

Lennox sees his job as preparing “value-driven” leaders and embraces the challenge just like he did at West Point when the 9-11 terrorist attacks hit just three months after his appointment.

“Shortly after that, we had the largest number of students in the country that applied and we couldn’t accept everybody certainly. But it was pretty amazing and the motivation of those young folks was extraordinary. And they’ve done some amazing things afterwards,” Lennox said.

Lennox, the educator, expects the Saint Leo students to be similarly motivated to change the world.

Retiring Gen. Odierno Voices “Great Concern”

Gen. Raymond Odierno Photo courtesy of Association of the United States Army.

Gen. Raymond Odierno Photo courtesy of Association of the United States Army.

From the final press conference of retiring Army Gen. Ray Odierno:

In his final Pentagon press conference as Army chief of staff, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno said he has “great concern personally” about the Army’s fate, fearing the nation is “sacrificing long-term viability of our military.”

The 60-year-old general, whose Army career started in 1976, retires at a time of uncertainty about funding available for the military and increasingly complicated national security threats.

“Our security environment remains uncertain and dynamic,” Odierno said, citing Russian and Chinese aggression, unrest in the Middle East caused by the Islamic State group, threats of global terrorism, and an “unstable and provocative North Korea” as a short list of problems that could require military response.

You can read more of Odierno’s comments on the Association of the United States Army website. Odierno

Remembering the First Fallen from All-Female Team

   1st Lt. Ashley White was a member of the all-female Army Cultural Support Team. She was killed in Kandahar, Afghanistan in October 2011 while supporting a Ranger night mission. Credit Ashley White Family / Memorial Page


1st Lt. Ashley White was a member of the all-female Army Cultural Support Team. She was killed in Kandahar, Afghanistan in October 2011 while supporting a Ranger night mission.
Credit Ashley White Family / Memorial Page

Among those who will be remembered this Memorial Day is 1st Lt. Ashley White, a member of an all-female, all-Army Cultural Support Team attached to a Joint Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan.

White is buried behind her family’s church in Ohio. It’s the same church where she was baptized and where she married Capt. Jason Stumpf six months before she was killed.

The family had the option of burying Ashley at Arlington National Cemetery,

“They wanted to keep her close to home,” said best-selling author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. She tells the story of Ashley and her female teammates in her new book: Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.

“One of the things that always stays for me is the first time I was in Ohio there was a sign in her room written on ripped up notebook paper that said in all block letters ‘YOU ARE MY MOTIVATION’,” Lemmon said. “You realize, it was not this exceptional person’s death that defined her. It was actually her life and the kind of person she was.”

White and two Army Rangers, Sgt. First Class Kris Domeij and Private First Class Christopher Horns, were killed by an improvised explosive device during a night mission in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan October 2011.

One was 29 and on his fourteenth deployment; another was just 20 serving on his first. And one was a National Guard member who answered the call to join a new, all-female, all Army special operations team. – Ashley’s War –

“This story is part of changing the way we see our heroes. And that is really what was so compelling about telling it was it was this team of women who came together and took the call to serve and will be family forever,” Lemmon said.

Ashley's_War_book_coverShe writes that the only comfort Ashley’s teammates could find in her death is that she was treated equally, the same as the two Rangers who died alongside. Just like them, a Ranger coin was placed on her casket before departing Afghanistan and her photo was placed on the wall of Ranger fallen.

“Special Operations commanders here in Tampa said these women may have well laid the foundation for ultimate integration,” Lemmon said. “They were out there every single night on these kinds of combat operations that less than 5 percent of U.S. military sees at the tip of the spear while officially women were banned from combat.”

She added that the White family considers that part of their daughter’s legacy is reminding the country of the courage and valor of this team of women who answered that call to serve.

You can read an excerpt from Ashley’s War here.

Author Lemmon also wrote the New York Times best-seller, The Dressmaker Of Khair Khana, which tells the story of a young Afghan entrepreneur whose business created jobs and hope for women during the Taliban years. Lemmon was in Tampa recently to speak to the Women in International Security Florida Chapter.

You can listen to the WUSF News story with Lemmon and the NPR interview from April.

Meet the Top NCO from Florida’s 53rd Infantry Brigade

Florida National Guard SSG Aidana Baez with her practice "ruck" weighing 45 pounds - 10 more pounds that in competition - for training marches.

Florida National Guard SSG Aidana Baez with her practice “ruck” weighing 45 pounds – 10 more pounds than what is used in the competition.

The top Non-Commissioned Officers from the Florida Army National Guard this weekend are at Camp Blanding vying for the title of “Florida NCO of the year.”

It is two days of physical competitions, weapons and skills contests, a six-mile “ruck” march and tests on Army regulations.

Representing the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, headquartered in Pinellas Park, is Staff Sergeant Aidana Baez. She won NCO competitions at the company level and battalion level to earn the top brigade honor.

“I like to joke that the Non-Commissioned Officer of the year for the infantry brigade wears a skirt,” Baez said. “Cause I wear a skirt with my uniform and I think that’s fantastic.”

Active Guard Reserves from the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team do PT, physical training, in the parking lot of their Pinellas Park, FL headquarters.

Active Guard Reserves from the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team do PT, physical training, in the parking lot of their Pinellas Park, FL headquarters.

The petite soldier beat out competitors from the two infantry battalions, a field artillery regiment and a cavalry unit.

“They were all men, and I was just another competitor,” Baez said. “Maybe they didn’t see it until the “ruck March” that I meant business. But, it wasn’t like a blowout. They all did really well and we all encouraged each other.”

Baez said her strength in the competition is knowing the Army regulations which is a sweet irony because she almost got thrown out of the regular Army 11 years ago.

“My first duty station was Fort Drum, New York, not an easy duty station and I was not an easy soldier to deal with,” Baez confessed. “I had attitude, I was insubordinate, I got in plenty of trouble. And then, the day had come where I did too much. I was getting kicked out of the Army. My paperwork was done.”

Baez holds some of the ribbons and medals she's earned during 14 years in the military and two deployments, one to Iraq and the other to Kuwait.

Baez holds some of the ribbons and medals she’s earned during 14 years in the military and two deployments, one to Iraq and the other to Kuwait.

But the base chaplain and several NCOs stepped up in her defense. She was given a rehabilitative transfer to a new unit. Baez finished her hitch with the regular Army and then moved back to Florida and joined the National Guard.

She’s now a staff sergeant known for giving second chances to her soldiers, but they have to earn it.

With 14 years of service to her credit, Baez is on a mission to become Florida’s Top Non-Commissioned Officer of the Year. If she wins, Baez will advance to the regional NCO completion in the Virgin Islands.

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