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Wednesday, January 23 , 2019, 4:05 am | Fair 39º


Pierre Claeyssens Military Ball Honors Service of Central Coast Veterans

The event's keynote speaker U.S. Army Sgt. Sammy L. Davis, a 1967 Medal of Honor recipient, was the inspiration for the movie 'Forrest Gump'

Soldiers and family members were all smiles at Saturday’s Military Ball.
Soldiers and family members were all smiles at Saturday’s Military Ball.  (Melissa Walker / Noozhawk photo)

[Click here for a related Noozhawk gallery.]

A special Veterans Day weekend celebration began with the Military Ball held Saturday night at The Fess Parker for an elegant occasion filled with national pride and gleaming from the medals of more than 500 retired and active military personnel and guests.

Guests in military dress or optional black-tie were seated for a dinner and program that was capped off by dancing to the Art Deco Orchestra.

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.

“The whole evening was very special but the highlight to me was for our current generation of service members to rub elbows with multiple generations of veterans who are our nation’s heroes,” said Robert S. Bedell, CMSgt., USAF, Command Chief, 30th Space Wing, Vandenberg AFB. “It was humbling and inspiring.”  

The airmen from Vandenberg AFB were grateful to the Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Foundation for sponsoring 50 tickets for the airmen and their spouses to celebrate the service of themselves and other veterans.

The program began with the traditional posting of the colors, and the Pledge of Allegiance from Lt. Col Patricia Rumpza, USAF, followed by a rousing rendition of the national anthem by David Gonzales. A moving invocation by Chaplain Jerry Gray, USAF, then lead into the retirement of the colors before the program began.

The Missing Man Ceremony was conducted for the fourth consecutive year by Capt. Carolyn Alexa Wagnild, U.S. Army AH-64D Longbow helicopter pilot who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, brought a moment of silence and reflection, preceding the Letter from Commandant of the USMC – Brig. General Frederick Lopez, USMC 1967-68 (Ret.).

Next, Sheriff Bill Brown presented the Greatest Generation Award to CMSgt. Art Hicks, USAF (retired), who faced institutional racism in segregated Atlanta, but fought those hurdles to graduate among the first African-American aviators in the USAF’s Tuskegee Airmen.

“In World War II our skills were such that in escorting bombers deep into Germany, we never lost a single bomber while they were under our escort,” Hicks said.

Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Foundation executive director John Blankenship, U.S. Navy Pilot, 1965-70, Hazel Blankenship, and Sheriff Bill Brown, board member, honored U.S. soldiers past and present at the Military Ball held at The Fess Parker. Click to view larger
Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Foundation executive director John Blankenship, U.S. Navy Pilot, 1965-70, Hazel Blankenship, and Sheriff Bill Brown, board member, honored U.S. soldiers past and present at the Military Ball held at The Fess Parker. (Melissa Walker / Noozhawk photo)

“Many black men came back after serving their country only to be refused service at the lunch counters in their own hometown.”

Following, Col. Philip Conran, USAF, introduced 1967 Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Sammy L. Davis, U.S. Army, who delivered an impassioned message of hope and inspiration for duty, honor and country.

“All of us in America need to stand up firmly for whatever you feel that is true and correct in your heart,” Davis said.

“You see, I believe in ‘we the people,’ I believe in America, and if there is anything wrong with American today is simply because we the people have not been standing up firmly for what we believe is right in our hearts.”

Davis told Noozhawk that the character portrayed by Tom Hanks in the 1994 blockbuster movie Forrest Gump is based on his real life tour of duty in Cai Lây, Vietnam.

While the platoon was under heavy fire by enemy forces, a wounded Davis, against all odds, bravely rescued three severely wounded soldiers, making repeat trips back to the combat zone.

“When movie executives told me that they were going to make a movie about me, the real Forrest Gump, I went out and bought the book Forrest Gump, and I wasn’t impressed with it,” Davis said.

The event’s keynote speaker SFC Sammy L. Davis, U.S. Army (retired) attended with his wife, Dixie. Click to view larger
The event’s keynote speaker SFC Sammy L. Davis, U.S. Army (retired) attended with his wife, Dixie. (Melissa Walker / Noozhawk photo)

“But when I saw the movie I was extremely impressed because they made the movie very patriotic and I loved it.”

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, and that future Military Balls will continue to honor the courage of men and women from the Central Coast.

“You leave the ball with a duty to live up to the character, dedication, and sacrifice of all those veterans who have worn the uniform before you,” Bedell said.

“A very powerful night that I know none of us will take for granted.”

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

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