USO Rocks America and honors the military

VERO BEACH — Virtually every branch of the military was represented in some fashion (and in some cases fashionably represented) at USO Rocks America – Landsharks and Landmarks to benefit Vero Heritage Inc.  The event was co-chaired by Robert Paugh and Cathie Callery, and the presenting Five Star sponsor was Communications International, Inc. Even with a huge band platform and the enormous special operations craft on loan from the National Navy SEAL Museum, the Paris Air hanger had room to spare for the sold-out crowd. For the second year, Paris Christodoulides donated the use of his hanger for the event; when it’s not playing host to fundraisers, Paris Air offers charters, flight training, aircraft maintenance and services.  Originally from Cyprus, Christodoulides said they moved to Vero Beach in 1984, seeing it as a good community to raise their two children.  “America has been great to me.  I have been very blessed to be here and want to do whatever I can to give back to the community.”

Red, white and blue bunting decorated the room, and spray-painted camouflage table cloths were topped by a variety of centerpieces, crafted by volunteer Cynthia Baita, that included miniatures of the aircraft carriers Nimitz, which her brother-in-law served on, Enterprise and Lexington.  Life-sized cardboard photos of area servicemen were displayed around the room and a star-studded banner, covered with prayers and words of encouragement written during the first Gulf War, draped the base of the special operations craft.  It all tied into the event’s overall USO theme, recognizing the use of the Heritage Center as a World War II serviceman’s center and honoring the men and women who have served and are currently serving in the armed forces.

Rosie the Riveter outfits were popular choices for the ladies; Neda Heeter even had a cute little lunch pail purse to go with hers.  Comfortable camouflage fatigues stood out as another favorite with both sexes, and there were also plenty of flyboys and Seabees.

Judy Van Saun, who famously loves a good dress-up party, looked adorable in a flight suit and jacket belonging to Retired Navy Colonel John Davison.  She pointed out that the jacket had 14 patches representing missions flown from various aircraft carriers, including 200 missions from the Kitty Hawk, during the Korean and Viet Nam wars.

And then there were those who were able to fit into their old uniforms.  A muscled Chris Connors, still looking every bit the Marine, served for eight years with his younger brother during the first Gulf War, Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm.  “It’s the first time I’ve put it on in years; I’ve even got my dog tags.  You’re considered inactive reserves for four years and can be called up in time of need, so you’re supposed to keep your uniform ready.”  Connors has just received his Masters in Civil Engineering from the University of Florida (Hoorah!) and this able bodied Marine is now looking for a new job.

Tim Grabenbauer, Harbormaster at Vero Beach City Marina, said it was the first time he had put on his uniform in 14 years.  Grabenbauer retired as a Senior Chief after 21 years in the Coast Guard.  “After retirement, I just hung it in the closet.  With 9/11 there was a possibility that I’d get called back but I was one year too old.”

Heritage Center Executive Director Rebecca Rickey and her husband Gary Embrey met and served together for 10 years in the Navy.  “He used to work for me – still does!  Then, after being out for nine years, a friend talked Gary back into the Air National Guard where he served another 10 years before retiring.”  Her father Charles Rickey, looking spiffy in his dress blues, flew in Korea as a Navy pilot and retired in 1969 after 20 years service.

Even out of uniform, my guess is that you’d know John Pitta was former military, from his bearing to his handshake.  Pitta served as Captain in the Coast Guard, assigned to the Secretary of Defense, and proudly spoke of his two sons who are currently serving.  One son is an Army nurse at Walter Reed Hospital and the other is a Navy Commander, serving as Executive Officer to General McCrystal in Afghanistan.

Pitta smiled when I asked him about today’s USO, and said, “The USO is like their mom and dad.  When you’re away from home, it’s the little things that we all take for granted, that mean so much.  There are USO centers around the world, all staffed by volunteers, that anyone in the military can use to sleep, use the phones or the internet.”

Copious amounts of hot and cold hors d’oeuvres from Bono’s catering were consumed throughout the evening, along with liquid refreshments including a variety of Americana themed microbrews, from Great Spirits Liquor and Fine Wine.  The fabulous Landsharks, who have played a number of Armed Forces shows in the United States and overseas, put the Rocks America part into action, getting everyone up on their feet for dancing, conga lines and even a hula-hoop contest (handily won by Mary Samardino).  There were also a number of silent auction items to bid on, with an emphasis on speed and adventure, and a Target Practice wine toss that seemed to get easier as the evening progressed.

A Wall of Honor represented donations to the Heritage Center made in honor of a loved one’s past or present service in the armed forces.  It’s a traveling display that the Military Mom’s Prayer Group takes to the various events they attend.  Representatives from the Military Moms were on hand, raising awareness of their organization and passing out pre-addressed boxes for guests to take home, fill up and ship to the troops.  Every box was taken by the end of the night.  “We get emails from the guys who are overwhelmed by the generosity; they share the items with their fellow soldiers and with the local children to build goodwill,” said Pam Proctor, who started the group in August, 2006.

We chatted at the end of the evening along with charter members Linda Colontrelle and Roma Anderson.  Proctor’s son Captain Michael Proctor, a Saint Edward’s graduate is currently a C-130 pilot who has served one term in Iraq, one in Afghanistan and is now in Okinawa.  “It’s good for the newcomers to meet others who have gone through what they’re going through; there’s an instant bonding.”  The interdenominational group meets at Christ Church every Thursdays at 5 p.m.

Roma Anderson’s son, Lt. Col. Trane McCloud made the ultimate sacrifice.  He was killed in a helicopter crash in Iraq in 2006, shortly after Military Moms was formed, but she still goes every week to give support to others whose children are serving.  Linda Colontrelle’s son Danny graduated from West Point and served two tours in Iraq.  He has returned home safely, but she still goes every week also and maintains, “We’re not leaving until everyone comes home.”{igallery 151}

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