Okeechobee County Clerk of Courts Jerry Bryant was the keynote speaker.
"I am Jerry Bryant – a proud native of Okeechobee – a graduate of Okeechobee High School – and more importantly, a proud citizen of this great nation. And a proud United States Marine – sergeant E-5 - serving honorably as an F-4 and A-4 aircraft radar technician during the era of the Vietnam War," he said.
"I enlisted, but only after being called down for my physical, which was the sign that you were about to be drafted back in those days. After the physical, I went to the recruiter in Fort Pierce and enlisted in the Corps. After I finished the paperwork, I was told to go to the draft office across the hall to tell them I had enlisted. When I did, the secretary said that she had something going to me in the outgoing mail – my draft notice. She took it out of the mail and destroyed it.
"As my luck would have it, in December that year, they instituted a draft lottery, with each day of the year being assigned a random number from 1-365. My birthday was assigned the number 337. The draft only went to number 196 that year. But I was already signed up, so it was too late.
"Not that I was counting, but I served 3 years 9 months and 3 days of my 4 year enlistment. I got out early to attend college. I never went to war – but I went where the Marine Corps thought I was needed. The Marine Corps was one of the best things to happen in my life.
"After boot camp at Parris Island, I went through infantry training at Camp LeJeune, then through avionics school for 7 months, before being assigned to the Marine Corps Air Station at Beaufort, SC, where they left me for the next 3 years. I don’t want to seem like I’m bragging, but while I was there not one Russian aircraft got past South Carolina.
"Nonetheless, I am a proud veteran of the military services of our nation. But I am not sure why I have been given the honor of addressing you folks on this Veterans Day. I feel somewhat like our City Mayor – Dowling Watford. I’m going to steal some of his thunder here. Dowling recently told me that he was asked by the Seminole Tribe to speak at their Veterans Day celebration at the Brighton Reservation. He said when they asked him, he told them 'Are you sure? I was in the service, but I didn’t do anything. Why would they want me to speak.' The person checked with their group and called Dowling back, saying “Yes, they want you to speak.” Then they said, “Someone from the Seminole newspaper will be contacting you to write an article about you for Veterans Day." Later, Dowling got the call from the reporter. After he gave her his limited military history, the reporter asked, 'Why are they having YOU speak?' I wonder the same thing about me speaking today. Some of you are probably wondering too. But let’s try to make the best of this.
"When I think of Veterans Day, I think of the many heroes that have served our country. People like Audie Murphy, the WW2 soldier who was the recipient of every combat award for valor, including the Medal of Honor, and who later became a Hollywood actor. People like Pat Tillman, the NFL football player who left his successful career to join the Army Rangers after the Sept. 11 attacks and was killed during his second tour in the Middle East.
"I’d like to talk about other heroes for a minute. We hear the term 'heroes' used a lot today. The dictionary defines a hero as a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.
"I think there are several types of heroes today. Law enforcement officers are heroes. Firefighters and emergency medical personnel are heroes.
"Nurses and health care providers are heroes.
"Teachers are heroes.
"These are all rightfully heroes. Their work can be dangerous very suddenly and many of these go into harm’s way voluntarily and courageously, like during the pandemic. And I admire and respect each one of them. I do not mean to lessen their heroism in any way.
"But the military service men and women who go into combat, knowing the enemy is trying to kill them at every opportunity, are heroes of the highest order to me.
"When I think of Veterans Day, some of the heroes that come to mind are individuals many of us know or knew. Like my high school friend, Jim Goolsby. I realize this is 'Veteran’ Day' and not 'Memorial Day,' and by dying Jim never was able to become a 'veteran.' But Jim is a hero in the purest sense.
"Jim died in Vietnam on June 10, 1969. Though it was over 50 years ago, I recall like yesterday attending his funeral service at the First Baptist Church, just weeks after I had enlisted in the Marine Corps, 2 months before I was to report for boot camp. Jim’s name is engraved on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. On the Virtual Wall on the internet, there are tributes to him, including one by his Platoon Leader, Lt. Hunt, who described Jim’s heroic act that led to his death.
"Jim was called Water Buffalo by his fellow soldiers because he was the toughest fighting soldier in his unit. He walked point. Just days before he was to return home, Jim’s unit was advised of Viet Cong movement in their area. A patrol was sent out to locate them. A new soldier was scheduled to walk point for the patrol. Jim didn’t think he was experienced enough, so he volunteered to walk point. Jim was shot in an ambush by the Viet Cong, was medi-vacced, and did not recover.
"His platoon leader left a touching tribute on Jim’s page on the Virtual Wall, describing the incident and the impact it had on his fellow soldiers. Also on Jim’s page is a tribute by the soldier who was supposed to walk point that fateful day. He did not learn why he did not walk point that day until 30 years later. He said he owes his life to Jim.
"Jim Goolsby is a hero.
"I also think of a local pharmacist who moved away a few years ago. As I recall, Steve Kos was a Navy corpsman assigned to a Marine unit in Vietnam. He braved enemy fire to attend to a wounded Marine. When the Viet Cong advanced toward his position, instead of fleeing, Steve dragged the Marine into thick bushes, lay with him as the enemy jabbed their bayonets into the bushes looking for American soldiers, then got the Marine to safety after the enemy left.
"Steve Kos is a hero.
"And another hero I think of on these days is Charlie Norris, who entered the army in 1969 and served with valor in Vietnam. I won’t put Charlie on the spot by detailing why I consider him a hometown hero. But I will share one story about him. When I enlisted in the Marine Corps, I was given a delayed enlistment, which meant that I was sworn in as a Marine but did not have to report for boot camp for almost 4 months. So, I had to go to the induction center in Miami to be sworn in. I drove down in my car that morning and was able to return home later in the day.
"Charlie was drafted and rode the bus to Miami to the induction center, probably the day before. He was in the induction center when I was there to take the oath. We chatted at times when we were waiting for things to happen. At that time, they were sending some draftees to the Marine Corps. That had happened to another friend, Larry Williams, the year before. One of the servicemen working at the induction center announced that they needed someone to help with some paperwork. None of the draftees volunteered.
"Then he announced that he would see to it that whoever helped out would NOT be sent to the Marines. Charlie bolted up there like he had been zapped by a cattle prod and volunteered before any of the others could get out of their seat.
"Now anyone who has gone through military boot camp knows that they don’t want you to bring anything with you except maybe a toothbrush. They issue you everything you need and have you box up your civilian clothes and shoes and mail them back home to Mom.
"Well, Charlie apparently did NOT get the memo. Before I left the induction center to return to Okeechobee, Charlie came up and said, 'Jerry, would you do me a favor. These people said I don’t need to take anything with me to boot camp. Would you take my suitcase back home and drop it off at my parents’ house?' He handed me a nice sized piece of luggage, apparently packed with enough stuff for a week’s vacation.
"I delivered the suitcase to Charlie’s mom and told her where he would be going to boot camp. There was sadness on her face, like the sadness many mothers experienced back during that time.
"Charlie was a soldier’s soldier. He served with courage and valor in the thick of battle. He is modest and humble, but no less courageous. I have great respect and admiration for my friend.
"Charlie Norris is a hero.
"There are many more heroes among us whose stories we may never know. Some are probably here with us today. All who served may not technically be 'heroes,' but all veterans deserve our respect and honor.
"We are blessed in this community to have folks like you who care enough about those who have served our nation and us, to come out and celebrate this day. Without you there would be no celebration.
"We are even more blessed to have had so many men and women from our community, like those heroes I just mentioned, willing to serve and to protect our country and the life we all enjoy. Our freedoms have been kept secure by their service and sacrifices.
"It was said long ago that 'The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.'
"Abraham Lincoln said, 'Honor to the soldier and sailor everywhere, who bravely bears his country’s cause. Honor, also, to the citizen who cares for his brother in the field and serves, as he best can, the same cause.'
"John F. Kennedy reminded us, 'As we express our gratitude to our veterans, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
"On this Veterans Day, I urge us all to remember the service of our veterans, and to assure that we keep our nation’s promise to fulfill our obligations to our veterans and their families who have sacrificed so much so that we can live free.
"Thank you for allowing me this honor today and for your kind attention.
"May God bless our veterans and their loved ones. And may God bless our great nation."