Veterans Day: Thank you for your service

OKEECHOBEE — Veterans Day, originally known as Armistice Day, was proclaimed on Nov. 11, 1918, the day World War I ended. On Nov. 11, 1942, the Wilmington Morning Star published an article proclaiming that even though they were in the midst of fighting World War II, they would still celebrate Armistice Day because they believed when World War II ended it would be the end of all wars, that those who started the war would have learned their lesson and would never want to start another.

In 1954, after much urging by many veterans’ service organizations, Armistice Day was changed to Veterans Day to honor all veterans, past, present, and future, not just those who had fought in World War I. The U.S. Department of Veterans affairs calls Veterans Day “A celebration to honor America’s veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.”

Okeechobee is honored to have many veterans living here. They come from all walks of life, and you might not even realize some of them served. They are all different, but they all have one thing in common, they sacrificed a piece of their lives so that we could be free.

Imagine giving up two or three or more years of YOUR life. What must that have been like?

Whether they were in a war zone or they were stateside, they were away from their families in a low-paying, high-stress job for a long time. Today, and every day, these men and women deserve our thanks. Here are a few of their stories:

• Although he plays a colonel on the Open Hands Health Center’s dinner theater stage, in real life, Robert Keebler Jr. was an electrician’s mate in the navy. He volunteered when he was 19 years old, right out of high school, and served in the submarine service. Mr. Keebler told of his first week on the boat, which he said submarines were called. He said he really had no idea what he was doing at that time, but everyone else was very highly trained. All of a sudden, an alarm started going off and someone hollered, “flooding in forward! Flooding in the bow!” Well, quick as a wink everyone disappeared and he was left standing there. They all knew exactly what to do, and they did it. Before long, Mr. Keebler got his “dolphin,” which is what they call becoming qualified on the boat. In order to become qualified, you have to know everything about the boat so you can take over any position if you need to in an emergency. He explained that you could tell a good officer by whether he had a dolphin or not. Mr. Keebler says he has no regrets. He considers his sub crew like one big family. They would have done anything for each other and still would. They get together often and are planning a reunion in November in Charleston. “If churches got along as well as the crew of the submarine, we wouldn’t have half the problems,” said Mr. Keebler.

Robert Keebler Jr.

• Many may know Al Baird as the vegetable man from Walmart, but what you might not know is that he spent seven and a half years in the army and is a veteran of Desert Storm. Mr. Baird joined the army at the age of nineteen, soon after he graduated from high school.

He did his basic training in San Antonio at Lackland Air force base followed by technical school in Denver where he was trained as an aircraft armament system specialist. He explained this involved loading bombs and missiles and working on armament systems and gun systems. Once he was trained, he was sent to Hill Air Force base in Layton, Utah where he had the opportunity to work on the F16. From there he was deployed to Desert Storm and following that, to Lakenheath Airbase in England where he worked on the F15E until his service ended. Mr. Baird does not regret serving and would do it again. He is proud of serving his country but feels that the real heroes were the World War II vets. He said he felt they really had it so much harder because they didn’t have the technology we have now.

When he sees someone with a WWII hat, he has a lot of respect for them.

Al Baird

• He hides it behind a sweet smile and a friendly voice, but Bob Wolfe revealed that he actually would have made a good mafia hit-man because of all the training he received in the service. He enlisted in the army when he was eighteen, on the day he graduated. He wasn’t sent to Korea at first, but when the Korean war broke out, he was immediately sent over there. He spent three years in a combat area, receiving a Silver Star, which is the Armed Services’ third highest award for valor during combat. He was also wounded and awarded a Purple Heart. Master Sergeant Wolfe, nicknamed “Iron Mike Wolfe” spent his time after combat training the new troops. He said they didn’t like him much because when he trained them, he really trained them, but he wanted his men to live. He spent thirty-nine years in the service. He also shared that Don Blocker, who played Hoss Cartwright on Bonanza was on the base with him and was a great guy who would give you the shirt off his back. Mr. Wolfe said when he first joined the service, a trainer told him, “You can’t do nothing unless you are mentally orientated.” Mr. Wolfe has always believed this saying, “If you want to get something done, first you have to make up your mind to do it.”

Bob Wolfe, nicknamed “Iron Mike Wolfe”

• Bill McElheny had a somewhat different experience in the service. He too joined right out of high school. He explained that all the men in his family served in the navy. His dad served on a destroyer and his uncle was a chief electrician’s mate. All Mr. McElheny dreamed of as a boy was joining the navy and becoming a Seabee. Seabees do the construction work for the navy, and he has always loved building things. After boot camp he found out he was not going to be allowed to join the Seabees, and talked to his dad about it. He remembers his father saying, “Bill, do the best you can do at whatever they ask you to do, and don’t get your nose dirty.” So he decided that was what he would do. From that point on he says, he never had a bad job in the navy. His very first job was on a fishing boat. Then he ran a bowling alley for enlisted men, and then one for officers, and afterward, he ran a craft shop. At one point his job was to keep track of the pilots’ flight hours, and then he got to be the mailman. He says right before discharge they decided to make him work in the mess hall, but even then he was in charge, so he never had to peel potatoes. He credits his dad’s words to some extent for this. He tried to have a good attitude no matter what they gave him to do, and he believes that God’s hand was on him protecting him.

• Many know him as Detective James Pickering with the Okeechobee Police Department, but what some might not know is he spent four years of his life in the Mojave Desert serving in the Marine Corps. Unlike the other men in his platoon,who joined right out of high school, he was known as the “Grand Old Man” at the ripe old age of 24. Detective Pickering explained he joined mostly because he was bored and felt he had no discipline. He was trained as a radio operator and was part of designing live-fire exercises. He would set up scenarios which the trainees would have to work their way out of. When he left full-time service, he served two years in the reserves in Orlando with the 4th Battalion Med Evacs. One thing that has stuck with him over the years is something a platoon sergeant once told him, “Never stand when you can sit. Never sit when you can lay down. Never stay awake when you can sleep.” Detective Pickering has no regrets about his time in the service and would advice a young person today who had no job or college plans, to go and check out the options the Marines can offer.

Detective James Pickering with the Okeechobee Police Department

• Stacy Pasquarella had a unique experience serving our country. After completing school to become a physician’s assistant, she had the opportunity to join the Public Health Service, which is a branch of the service that many have never heard of. Mrs. Pasquarella explained the Public Health Service has no enlisted members. They are all commissioned officers with degrees, in some health-related field. The Public Health Service does not go to war but can be called upon to help in a medical capacity during times of war. Mrs. Pasquarella’s first assignment was in the Federal Bureau of Prisons in a hospital in North Carolina. Mrs. Pasquarella found it very disconcerting at first because all the prisoners wore street clothes.

She said the only way you could tell the guards from the prisoners was the guards carried keys. Once she realized she was allowed to talk to the prisoners and (to some extent) treat them like any other patient, Mrs. Pasquarella was able to relax and enjoy her time there.

One of Mrs. Pasquarella’s most memorable assignments was on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration expedition to count marine wildlife. She was able to go as the ship doctor for 30 days. Mrs. Pasquarella left the service when her husband was called to preach, and she began working at the Veterans Administration in Okeechobee. She said she loved working with the vets there, and felt like they were the real heroes. “A lot of vets gave their lives even though they are still living,” she said. She went on to explain, “so many are in physical and mental pain, the average American has no idea, and that is why they are so judgmental.”

Stacy Pasquarella

There are many more stories and many more veterans in Okeechobee, and we are grateful to all of you for your service.

Cathy Womble is a staff writer for the Lake Okeechobee News.

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