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A day to remember

Locals reflect on the meaning of Memorial Day.

May 30, 2018
Jessica Salmond - News Editor ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

It's all in the name: Memorial Day is a time for us to reflect on those who have sacrificed their lives in service to the United States, as well as to think of those who are still currently serving.

We sat down with two veterans, and the father of an active duty military man, to talk about their service and what Memorial Day means to them.

Rob Barnes: VFW Post Commander

Article Photos

Jordan Gray of Cape Coral always wanted to be in the military, says his father, Matt. Now, his 19-year-old son is stationed in Alaska in the Army as a member of a Stryker armored vehicle unit.

Ohio-native Rob Barnes wasn't always biggest fan of the Veteran of Foreign Wars (VFW). Now, he's a post commander.

He was drafted a few years into college and served in the U.S. Army as a Specialist Fifth Class medic and lab technician, assigned to a mobile lab unit in Vietnam.

His father, a WWII veteran, was cheered when he returned home. Barnes watched veterans of other conflicts get a warm welcome, too.

But it wasn't the case for him or his fellow service members from Vietnam.

"We answered the call to serve, but at that time in America, we weren't being rooted for," he said. "But we still served our country, and 58,000 paid the price."

He signed up for VFW when he returned, but found Vietnam veterans weren't welcome there at the time, either. Vietnam vets were getting opposition "from all angles."

"The WWII guys looked down on us," he said. "They called us losers because we didn't 'win' the war."

It gave him, and a lot of other veterans, a bad taste in their mouths.

But now, he's the post commander of the Fort Myers Beach VFW Post 10097, overseeing more than 1,100 members and 700 auxiliary members.

Barnes served as vice commander since 2014 was elected as commander earlier in May, and his involvement is thanks to his friend, Dale Mangione.

Mangione was the previous commander.

While Barnes was in service, his parents Bob and Jane moved to the Fort Myers area. He joined them when he returned and began working for Giant Furniture Showrooms. Eleven years later, Mangione was a store manager and Barnes was the vice president of the company, and the two became friends.

He started coming around the VFW more often thanks to the friendship, and in 2009 became a regular member at the 10097. Barnes offered to start helping Mangione out.

Mangione, a highly-decorated U.S. Army Ranger from Vietnam, served as commander from 2005 to 2018, when he became ill. He died April 30. The post will have a memorial for him Sunday, July 15 at 1 p.m.

"When he became commander, the post was struggling," Barnes said. "He got the post turned around, and I'm grateful for his strong leadership and longevity."

Barnes says he feels like he has big shoes to fill, but after returning to the VFW, he's passionate about the cause.

Attitudes about Vietnam veterans have changed now.

"People seem to respect any veteran who's served. Through the media, they can see the struggles and appreciate their sacrifices," he said.

Barnes has embraced the role the VFW plays in the lives of veterans, not only providing them a place to gather with their fellow service men and women, but also a resource for help and a lobby for federal regulation.

On Wednesday, May 23, the U.S. Congress passed a $55 billion bill to reform Veterans Affairs (VA), a piece of legislation the national VFW organization lobbied to achieve. The bill gives veterans more options for healthcare, Barnes said.

For Barnes, Memorial Day is a time for prayer and reflection.

"It's a chance for everyone to get together for prayer and reflection on the sacrifices that so many people over the years have given for this country to be free," Barnes said. "It's a time to remember, enjoy family and friends and celebrate our freedom."

Jodi Hanson : Boom operator

Jodi Hanson never had childhood dreams about being in military.

It occurred from an opportunity - and became the best decision of her life.

"My parents thought I was crazy," Jodi Hanson said.

She wanted to go to a more expensive college, and didn't want her parents to have to pay for it.

Her friend told her about the Air National Guard - and she signed up.

"My scores were high in areas where women didn't typically test high in," Hanson said.

She had done well on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test, and qualified to train as a boom operator. A boom operator is the person who refuels combat planes in the air.

She was one test away from being a fully-qualified boom operator when 9/11 happened.

Her base in Pennsylvania was on lockdown and she was on high alert. She flew out of Pittsburg with the 171st Air Refueling Wing to New York City and aided her team in refueling the jets that were flying over the site of the terrorist attack, as well as over the Capitol.

"I saw all the smoke from the quiet air space," she said.

From then on her time in the military was full speed ahead. In most cases being the Air Guard is a weekend thing, where its members have normal civilian lives and have to train throughout the year. They're only "active duty" when they're deployed on a mission. But Hanson was serving actively for her whole six years of service.

She was 19 years old, flying into war zones and working with her team of a pilot, a co-pilot, and sometimes a navigator, to refuel planes flying into Iraq and Afghanistan. It was an important and dangerous job - both planes have to fly in tandem and one wrong move could put someone's life on the line.

Hanson flew in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

It wasn't a scary thing to her at the time.

"It was exciting. I got to see the world," she said.

As a boom operator, Hanson was one of few women. She said her colleagues treated her like a sister, and she learned how to be comfortable in male-dominated situations. But being a female boom operator was a rare thing, and many of her superiors were old-school, she said.

"They were not used to working with women and it took a little while to prove I wasn't some chick coming in," Hanson said. "They had to see I was going to work just as hard."

Once her superiors she could complete her job as well, if not better, as a man, they were more accepting.

While on active duty, Hanson was also studying in her free time to finish her degree in finance and business administration. The Air Guard paid for her education - one of the best decisions she made, she said.

After her six years were over, Hanson returned to the U.S. and decided to move to Florida after visiting a friend in Fort Myers .She met her husband, Matt, just a week after the move.

Hanson had a career within her degree for a while; Matt and his father own and manage Salty Sam's Marina. She and Matt started a family; they have four children, Lana, 9, Willow, 6, Nash, 4, and Sylvie, almost 2.

Being in the military made her more patriotic. While Hanson may have thought her tour in active duty was exciting, she gained a deeper appreciation for those serving who were leaving families at home.

"I always thought about the Marines and the Army guys, what I witnessed and the dangers I was part of wasn't anything like what they experienced," she said.

For her, Memorial Day is a reminder of the pride she feels to be an American, and the pride she feels for her fellow service members.

"Many of the people I was working for were leaving families behind. It's a big sacrifice, but it's worth it," she said. "People should recognize that. Sometimes you just need to hear somebody's story to realize that."

Matt Gray: Father of Active Duty

Matt Gray of Cape Coral has had a long time to get used to the fact that his son Jordan would go into the military someday.

"Since he was a little kid, he's always been on that path. He pre-enlisted in high school, never wavered," Gray said.

He remembers his son as a child would always go up to servicemembers and tell them thank you for his freedom. He'd point out if an American flag was being mistreated or misused.

Jordan, 19, graduated from Island Coast High School last May. Nine days later, he was off to basic training in the U.S. Army. After that, he was stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska.

His son is serving in a very specific role: he's training as a member of a Stryker brigade combat team, a group of service members who operate an armored combat vehicle similar to a tank. These teams aren't deployed to serve for large lengths of time at an overseas military base. Instead, they wait for the call and can be deployed within 48 hours to complete a specific mission, which could take any amount of time, Gray said.

He hasn't gotten deployed yet, but it's almost happened. A few months ago, Jordan and his colleagues were told to call home and let their families know they might get sent out.

With recent political tensions, his location near Russia and North Korea makes Gray worry even more.

"You think about those things," he said. "I worry about him every day. Everyday, you wonder if you will get the call or read his name."

The location itself might as well be another county for his son; Jordan grew up in Cape Coral and on Fort Myers Beach with his extended family. Alaska is a big change - Gray said his son has relayed some amusing observations, like his eyelashes freezing while on a run.

"When he came home for Christmas, he said he could 'smell' again. Everything in Alaska is frozen and doesn't have a smell, he said," Gray said.

But being in the Army has made a marked difference on the young adult. His friends still back in Florida are talking about what they're doing this weekend - and Jordan is telling his dad about the live action fire training he just completed, where he had to make the decision whether to take out a little kid that had been fitted with self-detonating bombs.

"He matured very quickly. You look more at your own mortality," Gray said. "You take that in, to hear your kid talk like that."

Gray had plans to enter the military when he finished school, but was unable to. He started several of his own businesses, instead: MDG Electric, Gray International Realty, and Stingray Builders & Renovations.

But he's beyond proud of his son for his choice.

"We always taught him respect for the military, but he took that on his own," he said.

He's also appreciative of the opportunities the military will give Jordan, like the GI Bill to help pay for more education.

Having a son in the military hasn't changed the meaning of Memorial Day for Gray, but has intensified it.

Gray said he's offended by some of the protests in the past year, with people kneeling during the National Anthem. While people can feel free to protest before or after, the act of kneeling Gray equated to spitting on the sacrifice of military men and women who died in service of the United States.

"This is the banner that provides those rights," Gray said, referring to the flag. "If you can't defend that, you lose everything else. Don't spit on the blood of people who gave you that right."



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