[Click here for a Noozhawk photo gallery from the event.]

The 17th Annual Military Ball, an elegant occasion filled with national pride and gleaming from the medals of more than 500 retired and active military personnel and guests, was held recently at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort.

The stylish affair would not be possible without founder Pierre Claeyssens, whose generosity and lifelong commitment to the military and Santa Barbara emerged after an American GI saved Claeyssens’ life during his stint in the Belgian Army during World War I. John and Hazel Blankenship have carried on Claeyssens’ legacy, producing the event “Dedicated to the Greatest Generation and All Veterans” in association with the Pierre Claeyssens Veterans’ Museum & Library.

U.S. Navy pilot John Blankenship (1965-70) spoke of the honor and pride that each veteran holds and of the importance to create a welcoming environment for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan since Vietnam soldiers were not greeted warmly during their era.

“We’ve got to separate the war from the warrior and honor the men and women that we send overseas to do whatever our government and our country feels is the right thing to do,” Blankenship said. “We have a bond between us all and it runs very deep.”

Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, was among a group of special guests for a VIP reception that included Assemblyman Das Williams and Santa Barbara County First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal with Wounded Warrior Project, 425th Civil Affairs Battalion and the National Guard Marathon Team.

“It’s so important to honor those who have served our country and do serve our country and their families,” Capps said. “And now that Afghanistan and Iraq are not in the news so much, it’s tempting not to think about them and their lives go on, and we need to remember them always and provide the services that any veteran needs for as long as they live.”

Guests in military dress or optional black-tie strode by two U.S. Army vehicles, setting an impressive tone in front of the ballroom entrance. Once inside the Grand Ballroom, guests were seated for a dinner presented by Fess Parker’s talented culinary staff of Catering Director Kathy Ackley and Executive Chef Kirk Delong.

One of the special guests for the evening was World War II veteran Bea Cohen, who has spent more than 70 years of her 102-year-old life supporting the American military and giving back to the United States. Cohen was 4 years old when she witnessed the beginning of World War I in 1914, as bombs were dropped on the factory next to her home in Buhush, Romania.

Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, Missing Man Ceremony presenter and Army Capt. Carolyn Alexa Wagnild, and Santa Barbara County First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal. (Melissa Walker / Noozhawk photo)

Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, Missing Man Ceremony presenter and Army Capt. Carolyn Alexa Wagnild, and Santa Barbara County First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal. Click here for a Noozhawk photo gallery from the event. (Melissa Walker / Noozhawk photo)

During World War II, she worked in the communications department as a private first class outside of London in Elveden, England, and the sphere of her support for the military spreads across many philanthropic organizations, including the Jewish War Veterans Auxiliary Post 667, the United Cerebral Palsy Spastic Children’s Foundation, and work with veterans at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Hospital, Los Angeles Air Force Base for family services and the City of Hope.

Cohen believes immigrants are what made America what it is today, and that veterans now carry on what these immigrants began with service and sacrifice.

“As an immigrant, I am proud to be American by choice,” Cohen said. “As a real-life ‘Rosie the Riveter’ and American soldier, I was able to pay back this country that I love for allowing me to become an American. As a community volunteer, I was able to give back to humanity.”

The program began with the traditional posting of the Colors, and the Pledge of Allegiance from Norman Campbell, USN (retired) and William Lattin, ROTC, USC, followed by a rousing rendition of the national anthem by David Gonzales. A moving invocation by Peter Bie (U.S. Army 1967-70) then lead into the retirement of the Colors before the program began.

The Missing Man Ceremony with Capt. Carolyn Alexa Wagnild, U.S. Army Apache helicopter pilot, brought a moment of silence and reflection in memory of Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jose Montenegro Jr. and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Thalia Ramirez as she spoke of her lost friends and comrades.

Wagnild, who attends the Field Artillery Captains Career Course in Fort Sill, Okla., and in March will report to G3 Air at the 4th Infantry Division Headquarters in Fort Carson, Colo., shared with Noozhawk the unique feeling that is valued among military members.

“It’s the sense of service and the responsibility and camaraderie. Those are absolutely defining for us,” Wagnild said. “Like if I go through the airports and I happen to have something that says I’m in the Army, then other veterans come up and say, ‘What unit are you in?’ and, ‘I was in this unit and I did this in this unit for x amount of time.’ And you start talking and it’s just veterans and brothers and sisters who come out of the woodwork. You can’t find that anywhere else.”

U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Fred Lopez then read a letter to the crowd from the Commandant, and a Salute to the Services preceded the evening’s keynote speaker, retired U.S. Air Force Col. John Fer.

On Feb. 4, 1967, during his 54th mission over North Vietnam, Fer was shot down by surface-to-air missiles in Hanoi and became a prisoner of war for more than six years, at one point sharing a cell with another POW, now-Sen. John McCain. Fer received repatriation on March 4, 1973, and after 28 years of military service taught history and government as an elementary school principal. His decorations include the Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross.

Fer shared with Noozhawk his observance of what he terms the “two faiths,” which allowed him to survive the difficulties of being a POW.

“My survival and my resistance to propaganda and exploitation on the part of the North Vietnamese was based on what I call the ‘two faiths,’” Fer said. “No. 1, faith in god, and No. 2 was faith in the United States of America. On the one I concluded very early that I could not do everything myself, I needed prayer and faith in god. The second thing is faith in the United States never to forget me and never to forget the other POWs and eventually we would come home.”

Next, the Greatest Generation Award was presented to Sgt. Major Robert Forties and Arthur Petersen of the U.S. Army 101st Airborne.

Mjr. Forties, who spent 23 years in the U.S. Army, is an active member in many veterans organizations and has lived in Santa Barbara since 1964 with his wife and two children. Pvt. Petersen returned to Santa Barbara following WWII as a member of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Foxtrot Company where he parachuted into France on D-Day, and is a recipient of the Purple Heart and The Bronze Star.

Local U.S. Marines recruiter Sgt. Mason Cameron Turner, whose office is located at 3609-A State St., has had multiple deployments, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Korea, and was a part of Operation Unified Response for the disaster in Haiti, reinforced the value of the evening’s event.

“It’s a great opportunity for all the services to come together and build some camaraderie together and share old war stories. A true one team, one fight mentality,” Turner said. “People should know that military service members are influential and a huge part of the surrounding community. It’s great to have an event to celebrate the efforts of these individuals.”

In 1995, philanthropist Claeyssens began the Military Ball in order to pay tribute to both past and present members of the U.S. armed forces in the Santa Barbara area. After his death in 2003, the PCVML maintained the Military Ball as an important and ongoing source of support for veterans in the community. With a generous gift of $1 million from Claeyssens, the PCVML Foundation was founded in 2003 by John Blankenship who with his wife, Hazel, worked with the executive and advisory boards to honor Claeyssens’ pledge that all veterans will never be forgotten.

The dedication of the Blankenships and the PCVML Foundation will result in a museum to be built in Santa Barbara to preserve the history of the United States during the wars of the 20th century and honor the courage that many men and women from the Central Coast.

“It was nice being among fellow members of the military, and they should be proud of their uniform because it should be respected and honored,” Cohen said. “And the veterans should be treated the same way, and the women veterans especially. They’ve given up family, friends and jobs to join the service, not asking what’s in it for them.”

Noozhawk iSociety columnist Melissa Walker can be reached at mwalker@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkSociety, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

Noozhawk iSociety columnist Melissa Walker can be reached at mwalker@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.