Maybe they served in World War II, the Korean War, during the Vietnam era, or in Desert Storm. Regardless of their branch in the Armed Forces and regardless of their rank, all veterans were considered worthy of gratitude at the Veterans’ Military Ball Nov. 3 at the John P. Eliopulos Hellenic Center.
Some came in formal tuxedo-style suits, others wore military dress attire and several donned combat fatigues. Women wore formal gowns or knee-length cocktail dresses. Everyone looked like they stepped off the Red Carpet. Then again, Hollywood’s just a car ride away.
But the real point of this gathering of at least 260 guests was to thank surviving service men and women for their efforts, or pay tribute to their fallen comrades, in an evening of laughter and tears.
Coffee4Vets organized this year’s event based on the theme of “Honoring Our Veterans of Yesterday Who Secured Our Today.”
Army veterans Dennis Anderson, a long-time newsman, and Juan Blanco, president of Coffee4Vets, shared the stage as masters of ceremony. They played off each other like a tag team, at times trading friendly quips — think “Who’s on First?”
“At some point in the evening, we’re going to be welcoming dignitaries,” Anderson said in a more somber tone.
It is an honor to be in the presence of those people, said Stacia Nemeth, assistant treasurer of Coffee4Vets and Military Ball committee member.
Nemeth introduced the Antelope Valley Young Marines, who presented the colors while military service hymns and songs played in the background.
Nemeth told the crowd that portion of the program is “a lovely tribute to each of you who served in our Armed Forces.”
Three veterans were highlighted at the event — Jerry Lawrence, Henry Ochsner and R. Lee Ermey, posthumously.
Lawrence graduated from the U.S. Marine Corps Boot Camp in San Diego in August 1959, making him a Vietnam era veteran.
When he completed his time in the military, he enrolled in college and majored in speech and psychology. After retiring as general manager at Santa Clarita Transit, he focused on providing hospice care to veterans. During a visit with a hospice patient that was a World War II veteran, Lawrence realized the importance of making who patient know his military service was appreciated and not forgotten. And a program was created to present veteran hospice patients with a certificate of recognition.
Lawrence has been a member of the Marine Corps League Detachment 930 – Palmdale; Point Man Antelope Valley; Vets4Veterans; the Mobile Vietnam Memorial Wall committee; the Antelope Valley Young Marines; and he serves as a volunteer counselor for the Antelope Valley College Veterans Club.
Pvt. Henry Ochsner was 19 years old when he arrived in Normandy with the 101st Airborne Division for the D-day invasion that would liberate what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called “a suffering humanity” oppressed by Nazi occupation. It was also what Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of Operation Overlord, referred to as “the great crusade for which we have striven these many months.”
During that time Ochsner, as part of the Screaming Eagles, participated in the Normandy breakout, Operation Market Garden in Holland, the Siege of Bastogne and the capture of Adolf Hitler’s mountaintop retreat in the Bavarian Alps known as Eagles Nest.
Following the war, Ochsner served a while in the Merchant Marines and worked as a long-haul truck driver before devoting many years to the aerospace industry. He is a member of The Greatest Generation. In September 2017, he was awarded the highest decoration bestowed by France, the Legion of Honor rank as Knight Chevalier.
Gunnery Sgt. Ermey, who parlayed his military experience into an acting career that inspired many, was born March 24, 1944 in Emporia, Kansas, where he grew up on a farm. When he was 14, his family moved to Washington. He served in the Marine Corps from 1961 at age 17 to 1972. Somewhere along the way friends began calling him “Gunny.” While in service, he achieved the rank of staff sergeant. Around 1967 he served in Marine Wing Support Group 17 in Okinawa, Japan, but in 1968 was deployed to Vietnam, where he spent 14 months. He was discharged in 1972 because of several injuries.
He continued visiting Marine Corps recruiting stations where he spoke with recruits. He had roles in “The Boys in in Company C” and “Full Metal Jacket” among other films.
Ermey died this year, on April 15 at age 74 in Santa Monica after succumbing to complications from pneumonia. He married his spouse Marianila, a native of the Philippines, in 1975. Daughter Betty Ermey and granddaughter Sierra Walton, 17, attended the Military Ball to accept awards on behalf of the Gunny.
Betty, the fourth of six siblings, said her mother did not attend because she was flying back from the Philippines that day. Sierra is one of 12 grandchildren. She said her fondest memory of her grandfather was “the first time he taught me to shoot a gun. He had me aiming at a little bird in a tree. I missed, but he didn’t tell me that. He told me I hit it and I had to feather it and eat it. He was a practical joker. He used to buy fossils from his trips and tell the grandkids that he found them in his backyard, He was quite a character. He was always funny. Out of all the grandkids, I was his favorite.”
Betty agreed with her daughter. “She helped out in the hospitals and everything.”
Asked her favorite memory, Betty said, “There are so many. It would have to be the many deep-sea fishing trips, where Dad would keep us on the ocean for days at a time. No electronics, just Dad and the sea. My Dad would catch the fish. My Mom would cook it on the boat. Even at night we would stay on the boat and sleep underneath the stars. Thanks Dad, for that. Every day was an adventure with that man. I really miss him.”
Anderson named the dignitaries present including Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford; Palmdale Councilwoman Laura Bettencourt; Congressman Steve Knight and his wife Lily, plus members of his office staff including Lisa Moulton, Cathy Rouch, Chris Ward and Mitchell Chase; representatives for state Sen. Scott Wilk and Assemblyman Tom Lackey; and Chuck Bostwick, representing Los Angeles County 5th District Supervisor Kathryn Barger.
Representatives presented the night’s honorees with certificates of recognition for their service to the nation.
Iraq war veteran Jerral Hancock and his family also attended.
Anderson introduced keynote speaker Brig. Gen. General E. John “Dragon” Teichert, commander of the 412th Test Wing at Edwards Air Force Base. Teichert is a command pilot who has logged more than 2,000 hours in 36 different aircraft types.
“What I want you to take away,” Teichert told the crowd, is “we wouldn’t be able to do anything if we weren’t standing on the shoulders of God.”
He talked about one serviceman shot down over North Vietnam, who spent his days in brutal captivity and three years of his seven-year imprisonment in solitary confinement. That prisoner of war embraced the concept that he must be a good American. As Teichert looked over the room, he thanked all the veterans for being good Americans. “Thank you for living by the Military Code of Conduct.”
He also recounted the story of Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale, who walked to his execution saying his only regret was “that I have but one life to give.”
Teichert said Hale “had a spirit of service and sacrifice.”
“We couldn’t do what we do for our country if we weren’t standing on the shoulders of giants — if we weren’t standing on your shoulders.”