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Honoring Our Heroes

Suwannee Regional Veteran’s Appreciation Day Parade Grand Marshal William O’Donnell served in Korea as an artillery spotter with the 17th Field Artillery Battalion, US Army. -Photo: Submitted

By Jeffry Boatright

William O’Donnell once said that he would only fly again if the sky was as blue as his eyes. Of course, that was after flying 140 combat missions in the Korean War. A combat veteran of the Korean War and Vietnam, O’Donnell doesn’t deny that he experienced less than ideal flight conditions during his service to our nation. Given the same circumstances, however, it is doubtless that the former pilot would promptly and willingly do the same thing again. O’Donnell’s character is synonymous with American exceptionalism and that is one of the reasons he was selected to serve as the 2016 Grand Marshal for the Suwannee Regional Veteran’s Appreciation Day Parade.

The parade, which is slated to begin at 9 a.m., Nov. 11, will be routed through Live Oak on U.S. 129. Beginning at Suwannee Elementary School on U.S. 129 South, entries will proceed north before eventually heading west on U.S. 90, and finally south on Houston Ave. The parade will end at Langford Stadium. Suwannee County Veterans Service Officer Ellis Gray is pleased with this year’s participation and looks forward to a patriotic display of floats and other entries.

Following the parade, everyone is encouraged to attend the National Cemetery Memorial Service at the Live Oak City Cemetery. The memorial service, which is sponsored by the American Legion Post 107 and Disabled American Veterans, will begin at 11 a.m.

While Americans should honor our veterans every day, Nov. 11 was set aside by President Wilson in 1919 to commemorate Armistice Day. Over the course of time, that day has evolved to honor veterans of all branches of service from all eras. It is a day of reverence and reflection to pay tribute to the American heroes who have always protected our nation.

“It is a wonderful country, the best in the world, but we have always got to protect it,” O’Donnell emphasized. The father of four understands what it means to protect our country and recognizes that freedom isn’t free, nor does it come easy. He has spent a career serving our great nation and speaks with pride that his son, who is a Naval Academy graduate and retired Naval officer, followed his path of service.

With a record of unique opportunities and extraordinary experiences, O’Donnell admits that sometimes it is difficult for even him to believe such experiences. As a field artillery officer, he served in Korea as an artillery spotter in the United States Army with the 17th Field Artillery Battalion. There, he flew 140 combat missions in a spotter plane during 1952 and 1953, earning the Korean Service Medal with three battle stars.

O’Donnell’s military service later carried him to Vietnam, where he again served our nation during war. In addition to many other awards, the Army and Navy veteran earned a Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Combat Action Ribbon and the Vietnam Service Medal.

It was between his service in the Army and Navy that O’Donnell enrolled in college and earned a degree in civil engineering. That degree enabled him to work for the Bureau of Reclamation, building dams and canals. Later, he launched his own engineering business and grew that company from just him, to a total of fifteen workers before accepting a buyer’s offer to purchase the company.

Although O’Donnell remained with his former company for six months, he learned the United States Navy needed experienced construction engineers. He answered the call, was sworn in and eventually retired in 1988.

Like O’Donnell, a number of veterans who faced seemingly insurmountable challenges, but answered such challenges with bravery, dedication and resolve will gather Friday to pay tribute to their brothers and sisters who have worn (and continue to wear) the uniform. Among those will be this year’s honorary marshals, which include Leyron Baker, Joel Amos Howard, Jr., James Fortesque and Walter Shaw.

Leyron Baker, who served in World War II as a paratrooper in the United States Army, also served in the 24th Infantry Division during the Korean War. Joel Amos Howard, Jr. also served in the Army as a medic with K Company 27th “Wolfhounds” Regiment, 25th Infantry Division. One of the first units to deploy to Korea, the Wolfhounds saw heavy combat throughout the war and Howard was wounded in action on July 4, 1953. He received a Purple Heart and has been recommended for a Bronze Star for his actions in combat.

James Fortesque, another veteran of the Army served in Korea as a radio operator in the Seventh Infantry Division. His duties included laying wire for field phones and switchboard operator, and he received a Korea service medal with 6 stars. Walter Shaw Sr. also served in Korea as a United States Navy Corpsman in 1952.

According to Gray, last year’s grand marshal, Earl Mills, has been selected to receive an honorary brick at the “Walk of Fame” Veterans memorial in Tallahassee.

Honorary Marshal Leyron Baker served in World War II and Korea. -Photo: Submitted

Honorary Marshal Joel Amos Howard Jr. served as a medic in K Company 27th “Wolfhounds” Regiment, 25th Infantry Division. -Photo: Submitted

Honorary Marshal James Fortesque served in Korea as a radio operator with HQ Battery 57th field artillery, 7th Infantry Division. -Photo: Submitted