A tear forms in Jack Harris’ eye as he watches skydivers jump out of a plane holding the American flag.
“I just don’t know how to explain it,” the Korean War veteran said. “It’s just so great. This country just means so much to me and all my comrades and people that I’m with, and it’s just a great place to be.”
Every year on Veterans Day, the Alachua County Community Support Services Veteran Services Division teams up with various community organizations to host a Veterans Day celebration.
This year was extra special because last year’s celebration was held online due to the pandemic.
While there were no specific COVID guidelines in place at the event, some people wore masks. The event was outdoors at Veterans Memorial Park, so there was plenty of room for social distancing and being COVID-safe.
The event opened with a musical tribute from the Fort Clarke Middle School band. Playing songs such as America the Beautiful and Yankee Doodle, eventgoers were free to walk around the park and visit the booths set up. Many of the booths were set up by different branches of the armed forces and were raising money for various causes that impact veterans daily.
Then, after a welcome from Kim Davis, Director of Alachua County Veteran Services, Palatka Skydive started the formal ceremony, with a group of skydivers jumping down to the park. The last diver brought an American flag down, resulting in many cheers from the crowd.
Veteran Affairs Case Manager Julie Rattley performed the National Anthem. Local high schools were a big part of the ceremony, with Gainesville High School’s JROTC posting and retiring the colors and leading both the American flag ceremony and wreath-laying ceremony. Buchholz High School’s band performed Taps.
The University of Florida participated in the celebration as well, as the Billy Mitchell Drill team performed a special rifle demonstration.
Community leaders were also involved with the event, with Alachua County Commission Chairwoman Marihelen Wheeler reading a county proclamation. She said that this is a cause that she holds close to her heart.
“We grew up in a community that honored and made sure that our service people were cared for,” she said. “I want you to know that the words that are coming from me from this are also coming from my heart.”
The event also featured speeches from County Commissioner Ken Cornell and Sheriff Clovis Watson Jr.
The event was both opened and closed by a prayer led by Commander of the American Legion Post 16 Walter Cason.
This year’s celebration was not only honoring veterans but law enforcement and first responders as well.
Many veterans go into law enforcement when they return home, so this was a welcomed change for Ron Carbaugh, a veteran who served in the Korean War.
“I was a deputy sheriff in Monroe County, the Florida Keys, after I came back,” he said. “So, I don’t mind at all that we’re honoring the police forces.”
He also talked about the most important thing that he learned while in the service.
“Me,” Carbaugh said. “I learned how to stay alive.”
The booth that he helped run had a book with every single unit that served in Korea. He also had photos of his time while stationed.
While talking about what Veterans Day means to him and what the community showing their support means, Carbaugh got choked up.
“It really fills our hearts with joy,” he said.
He also said that getting the chance to talk to kids about the importance of our history and all that the military does for our country is beautiful.
“We hope they never have to do what we did,” he said. “But they’re learning from us.”
He said he enjoys telling others his stories and hopes that they realize all veterans do for our country and our community.
“Freedom is not free at all.”