Schools, St. George Island join in tribute

The county’s veterans were honored ahead of schedule this past week, with programs sponsored by the school district, the First Baptist Christian School and the St. George Island Lighthouse Association. Because Veterans Day fell on Sunday, and schools were closed Monday in honor of the holiday, the school events were held Friday morning, and the island’s on Saturday afternoon.

First to launch, on Friday morning, was the salute to “Hometown Heroes” conducted by the First Baptist Christian School in Apalachicola, a traditional affair overseen by Carline Kembro, school director.

From the tiniest pre-Kindergartner all the way up through the high schoolers, the program featured songs and recitations.

Charles Morris, the church’s former pastor, returned to serve as speaker, combining the Gospel message with his own personal one, based on his service in the military.

World War II vets Oscar Medley and Red Sizemore, together with Louis Van Vleet, whose brother died in the Pacific Theatre during that war, folded the flag, assisted by Bobby Carroll, a young veteran who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Later that morning, the student bodies of both the Franklin County Schools and the Apalachicola Bay Charter School joined together at the Eastpoint campus in the annual Veterans Day program.

The Port St. Joe High School Jr. ROTC was on hand for the presentation of colors and flag folding ceremony, just as they were Saturday afternoon at the island lighthouse to take part in that salute.

The Pledge of Allegiance was delivered by Eastpoint pre-kindergartner Neilan Sneed, the 4-year-old son of Assistant Principal Michael Sneed, Jr. a veteran of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Highlighting the event, which ranged from the pageantry of saluting each of the branches, to the solemnity of the Missing Man table, to the recitation of poems and songs, by the music department, was the recognition of this year’s honoree, Clara “Liz” Condo-Varner, retired as a staff sergeant from the Army as well as a trooper with the Florida Highway patrol.

After joining the Army in 1985, the Apalachicola native served stateside as well as in Germany, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan, for a total of eight years of active duty and 12 years in the Army Reserve.

After 22 years with FHP, Condo-Varner retired June 30, her last assignment with Troop A of Panama City.

On Saturday afternoon at the Cape St. George Lighthouse, a large gathering took part in the island’s Veterans Day program, emceed by Arnie Miesch, retired from the Navy and Vietnam vet Bob Heide, a member of the board of the St. George Lighthouse Association.

After Franklin County High School senior Drew Robinson sang the National Anthem, and retired Navy Lt. Commander Gordon Hunter delivered the invocation, the veterans in the audience were recognized, just as they been at each of the two Friday ceremonies.

The highlight of the ceremony was a keynote address by Vietnam vet Bob Holton, who recounted how he joined the Army right out of high school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and went on to a specialty in radio technology.

After “they cut my hair, stole my identity,” the military made Holton a member of the 11th Air Assault Division, where he put his technology know-how to work guiding helicopters, a key component to the Vietnam combat operations.

“It was like fireworks when you were a kid, but it soon became obvious this wasn’t a game,” he said.

In August 1965 he went with the 1st Cavalry Air Mobile division to Pleiku, where “he learned to play craps and lost a lot playing poker.

“It seemed to get more hopeless, the angst was obvious,” Holton said.

At age 19, he had become the team leader of a four-man crew, as they conducted ops in the Montagnard highlands of Vietnam, clearing the roads with minesweepers. In Oct. 1965, Holtom was injured in an explosion, and during his hospitalization was given the option of returning to San Francisco, or to his unit, which he opted for.

“That probably was a mistake,” he said.

Holton said that amidst his anger and disappointment, “I became aware of the person on your right and your left.

“We lost an enormous amount of people,” he said, noting that about 60,000 troops died in the war, and another 150,000 were wounded, with about a third of these casualties suffered by draftees under age 22.

“Without the man next to you, you had no options whatsoever,” he said.

“The war had ill-timed and ill-intended consequences. The war polarized the nation,” Holton said. “Vietnam has become a painful lesson.”

He also stressed that unlike back home, “there was no civil rights problem in Vietnam. Color, race, gender, age, made absolutely no difference.”

He closed by reminding his fellow vets of the common thread that binds them, that “we have been trained, we will be tested, we must be true.”

Following the singing of “God Bless America” by Gordon Adkins, and a benediction by Father Roger Latosynski, pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Church, the gathering enjoyed a reception of baked goods prepared by St. George Island resident Kelly Rowland.