Terrence Fitzpatrick, 92, and Donald Sherry, 88, were just teenagers when they were shipped to Germany in the wake of the Korean War.
Now, the retirees are determined to never forget their days on the battlefield as members of the Gainesville branch of the Korean War Veterans Association (KWVA), Chapter No. 267.
And the City of Gainesville will not let them forget either. Alachua County Veteran Services held its second annual Operation Green Light mission.
Kim Davis, Alachua County Veteran Services director, has been serving veterans for over 20 years. She began her military career in 1990, enlisting in the National Guard when she was 17. With firsthand knowledge of the hardship and trauma associated with war, Davis said she wants to honor veterans alive and fallen everywhere.
In a press release last month, she encouraged county residents and workers to illuminate their homes and buildings with green light bulbs in a project called Operation Green Light.
“That’s just like putting the American flag in the yard,” she said. “It brings focus and attention that our veterans are here [and] among us.”
The National Association of Counties (NACo), an organization representing more than 3,000 county governments in the United States, began Operation Green Light last year to call attention to veterans not receiving legal, medical, financial or other benefits in their counties. According to Davis’ statement, more than 30,000 veterans have committed suicide over the past two decades.
“Our veterans, with the mental health, carry these challenges,” Davis said. “We have got to find a way to heal those who serve for us.”
As a member of NACo, Alachua County followed the organization’s participation in the initiative. Among the city buildings lit green, Davis said, were those at Veterans Memorial Park, the Freedom Community Center and Alachua County Community Support Services in East Gainesville.
“It’s Veterans Day now,” Davis said about those focusing on approaching holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. “This is our Veterans Week, so let’s take it and focus…and put the green light out.”
Touched by these brightened buildings were Fitzpatrick and Sherry. As longtime residents of Gainesville, they have come to find that they are no anomaly. Davis said nearly 20,000 veterans currently reside in Alachua County, about 10% of its total population.
Raised in Pinellas County, Fitzpatrick joined the Florida National Guard when he was 16 years old. Despite having a father who served in World War I and two brothers in World War II, he was determined never to be drafted.
Fitzpatrick said he attempted to join the Marine Corps in St. Petersburg, but the recruiting office had other plans. Over a cup of coffee, he would make a decision that would change the course of his life.
“An hour later,” he said. “I walked out and joined the Army.”
By January 1951, Fitzpatrick was a registered U.S. Army man and stationed in Germany, equally pointing fire and dodging bullets from Chinese soldiers just feet away. Confined to a tight bunker in the bitter cold, he said he vividly remembers stuffing socks under his shirt to keep warm and hiding toilet paper under his helmet for safekeeping.
“Some memories,” he said, “are really nightmares.”
One memory, for Fitzpatrick, who reached the rank of sergeant, stands out above the rest: the Korean Armistice Agreement, a ceasefire between the U.S. and Chinese troops. A day defined by sounds of shots and ear-curdling explosives, he recalled the exact moment it all stopped: July 27, 1953, at 10 p.m.
“Like somebody pulled a switch or something,” he said. “It was quiet as can be.”
After the stalemate that ended the Korean War, Fitzpatrick said he returned to the United States, giving up his service at the National Guard to pursue post-secondary education. He returned to Florida after graduating from Coastal Carolina University, working as a mechanical engineer in the phosphate business until retiring and joining KWVA in Gainesville.
There, he met and befriended Donald Sherry, commander of the organization. After retiring from a decades-long career at Western Auto Supply Co., which would take him from his hometown in Rhode Island to North Florida, Sherry began as commander of KWVA Chapter No. 267 in 2002.
Sherry also was deployed to the trenches of Germany. But he had a difficult time serving as commander because he received criticism from fellow members of the organization for not serving in Korea.
He said the pushback triggered him to resign from his role as commander in 2003, but he’s remained an active member in the organization ever since. After all, he flew Fairchild C1-19 Flying Boxcars over Europe as part of the U.S. Air Force from 1954 to 1955, he said.
“The most dangerous part of my job was flying back and forth,” he said. “If it was a blizzard, and you didn’t hold on to that tow rope…they wouldn’t find you till next May.”
Now 70 years after the end of the Korean War, Sherry and Fitzpatrick are living vicariously through younger generations of veterans. And next year, Sherry will return as commander of the KWVA.
Every first Wednesday of the month at Northwest Sixth Street’s American Legion, the two plan with their peers in KWVA Chapter No. 267 on how they can help homeless veterans or support young Reserve Officers’ Training Corps groups in the community.
“I don’t think you can do anything better [than] serve your country,” said Fitzpatrick. “I’m proud of it.”