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Altman: Wreaths, reporter follow similar paths

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Published:   |   Updated: December 9, 2013 at 07:52 AM

The last time I wore a uniform, it had a patch that said Cub Scouts. The Vietnam War was winding down, more than 50,000 U.S. troops had been killed, many more were wounded and those coming home returned to an unhappy welcome.

It is because of all those factors that I am honored to be selected to give a speech at the Bay Pines National Cemetery on Saturday as part of the national Wreaths Across America celebration.

Wreaths Across America began in 1992 when Morrill Worcester, owner of the Worcester Wreath Co., realized he had extra wreaths at the end of the holiday season, according to the organization's website. With the help of U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, arrangements were made for the wreaths to be placed at Arlington National Cemetery in one of the older sections of the cemetery, an area which had received fewer visitors with each passing year.

The ceremonies really took off in 2005 and are now in more than 750 locations. Aside from Bay Pines, local ceremonies will be taking place at including Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell, Sarasota National Cemetery and American Legion USS Tampa Post 5.

I first learned about the program last year, when I covered the event at Post 5, a fascinating spot off Kennedy Boulevard noticeable by torpedo displayed out front.

But it also has a cemetery. The American Legion USS Tampa Post 5 cemetery was created in 1921. The post is named in honor of the USS Tampa, a Coast Guard cutter transferred to the Navy that was torpedoed in September 1918, killing 115 seamen.

The speech will give me a chance to talk about why I, as a lifelong civilian, cover the military. It is a motivation, it turns out, that echoes the WWA motto of Remember. Honor. Teach.

As a reporter covering the military, it is my job to help readers remember that we are still at war and have troops spread out in many dangerous places. To tell the stories of those who have fallen so that they may be honored. And to write stories that, at least on some level, teach about what is going on with our military and what is being sacrificed, in blood and treasure, in your name.

Because to me, that is the bottom line.

You may like the military or you may not.

You may support the war in Afghanistan or you may not.

You may trust the leadership to do the right thing, or you may have seen enough to convince you otherwise.

Whatever you believe, this much cannot be denied.

The men and women who put on a uniform serve in your name. They fight and die in your name. And trillions have been spent on martial endeavors in your name.

If you like that, own it. If not, seek the redress given to us by our Constitution.

I can't tell you what to think, nor should I. I can only give you as much information as I can to make an informed choice.

The ceremony runs from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, near the obelisk. It is hosted by cadets from Civil Air Patrol Group 3, representing West Central Florida. The Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Patriot Guard Riders, Daughters of the American Revolution and other veteran service organizations will take part. A special wreath for late Congressman C.W. “Bill” Young will be given to his widow, Beverly Young, in honor of his service to veterans.

Wreaths are still available for purchase. Go to waastore.com by clicking here. Go to the “Sponsor a Wreath” page, select a wreath, click on “add to cart.” When you have made your selection, hit “add to cart” again and put FLBPNP in the location/group ID box.

Navy stands corrected

On Sept. 24, Adam Sardinas, a Marine lance corporal from Tampa, received a letter from the Department of the Navy. The sea branch was informing Sardinas that it was reviewing the records of all sailors and Marines who received a disability severance finding between October 2007 and January 2009.

The letter was informing Sardinas that his injury “did not occur in a war zone.”

His mother, Cyd Deathe, director of the Tampa Area Marine Parents Association, went understandably ballistic.

Sardinas is a Purple Heart recipient. It's a medal awarded only to those wounded in ... wait for it ... a war zone.

“Are you serious, did they really send this letter to my son?” a furious Deathe wrote in a recent email. “I am appalled and feel as if my son, his service and our family has been disrespected by this horrible statement!

“Most of you know that Adam served in Ramadi, Iraq in 2006 when it was known as 'the most dangerous place in the world'. He is personally described in TIME magazine about his blood flowing and pooling beneath his machine gun while he kept firing and fighting.

“How does something like this happen and why should it ever happen.

“It is unacceptable.”

I received Deathe's email on Dec. 2. The next day I sent a query to the Navy asking why it said Sardinas was not injured in a war zone.

The day after that, the Navy sent out a letter to Sardinas.

“The purpose of this letter is to inform you that the Department of the Navy Physical Evaluation Board (PEB) erroneously notified you that your injury did not occur in a combat zone. In fact, the PEB found that your injury did occur in a combat zone (boldface in original text). I apologize for any inconvenience the previous letter may have caused you.”

The letter went on to explain that the error was due to an “administrative oversight.”

Iraq memorial

A new memorial commemorating the service of Iraq Veterans will be unveiled at 3 p.m. Saturday at Veterans Memorial Park, 3602 U.S. N. 301, Tampa. The dedication ceremony will honor military veterans from Florida who sacrificed their lives in Iraq from March 2003 to December 2011.

The public is invited to attend and should plan to arrive early due limited parking. A motorcycle processional will begin at 2 p.m. An official proclamation from Hillsborough County will be presented and singer Jason Wyatt will perform a musical selection.

Guest speakers include U.S. Special Operations Command Deputy Director Lt. Gen. John Mulholland, U.S. Central Command Command Sgt. Maj. Frank Grippe and a representative from American Gold Star Mothers Tampa Bay Chapter.

For more information on the Veterans Memorial Park and Museum, call (813) 744-5502 or Hillsborough County Department of Veterans Affairs at (813) 246-3170.

No troop deaths

For the second week in a row, the Pentagon reported no U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

There have been 2,279 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation's longest war.

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