Winter Park debuts veterans event

City's inaugural event

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  • | 7:20 a.m. November 9, 2011
Photo by: Isaac Babcock - Jesse Fitzgerald battled bears, stormy seas and freezing temperatures in the Air Force in Alaska.
Photo by: Isaac Babcock - Jesse Fitzgerald battled bears, stormy seas and freezing temperatures in the Air Force in Alaska.
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The city of Winter Park will present its inaugural Veterans Day Celebration on Friday, Nov. 11, at 11 a.m. For more information about the event, visit All local veterans are encouraged to attend and be recognized for their service.

The city of Winter Park will present its inaugural Veterans Day Celebration on Friday, Nov. 11, at 11 a.m. to honor all local veterans.

The event will be outside at the new Winter Park Community Center Ruby Ball Amphitheatre at 721 W. New England Ave. and will have organizations there that offer information and services for veteran needs. There will also be speakers, musical tributes and, most importantly, the recognition of local veterans.

Winter Park Mayor Ken Bradley said he is excited and honored to recognize the people who have protected and served our country.

“It’s certainly because of our veterans that we enjoy the quality of life and freedom that we do,” he said. “Each one of us has not forgotten their service.”

Some Winter Park veterans reflected on their military service:

Birke Bryant — Army

Birke Bryant retired as a first sergeant in the Army after 30 years of service. A Winter Park native, he enlisted right after graduating from Hungerford High School in 1959. He served tours in Germany, Korea and Vietnam.

Bryant was often the only black man in his unit, and almost always the only black man in fire direction, his job when he first enlisted.

“They looked at me as being an outsider,” said Bryant, who serves as chairman of deacons of Mt. Moriah Baptist Church Winter Park.

But once he proved himself, the other soldiers were more accepting. He continued to advance in the military, and at one point was in charge of 600 men.

He also faced danger frequently and was in combat in Vietnam. He told one story of being confronted with mortar bombs from the enemy. His job was to take data and turn it into firing data to tell the weapons where to fire. In a matter of minutes the whole unit that was communicating data to him was wounded. It was a scary night.

“I think my hair stood on end,” he said. “You just have a fear come over you, but you don’t stop what you’re doing.”

Those days taught him a lot about life.

“It was an experience; one you never forget,” Bryant said.

Stephen Seay — Army

Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Seay, who will be speaking at Winter Park’s event, spent his 34-year career all over the world, including being stationed in Germany, South America and Central America and the Balkans as well as being deployed to Iraq for 13 months. He graduated from the University of New Hampshire, where he was a part of the ROTC program and got his officer training.

Seay said what drew him to a career in the military was the opportunity to work in technology, where he got to work with rockets and missiles. But in the end, what he really learned in the military was to be a great friend and leader.

“The hook was the technology, but what kept me were the people,” he said.

As a leader and teacher, Seay was able to encourage other soldiers to develop their personal talents. Some of his best memories while serving were running into soldiers he had mentored who had achieved their goals — either in the military or out.

“You’re invested in their future,” he said.

Jesse Fitzgerald — Air Force

Jesse Fitzgerald, chairman of trustees of Ward Chapel AME Church in Winter Park, joined the Air Force straight out of high school in 1953 and served until 1961. There weren’t any jobs, and he didn’t choose college, so he thought the military would be a good opportunity to get some life experience and education. Like the other soldiers, he learned how to be a leader and took away special bonds with the men he served with.

“I have lifelong friendships with fellows that I was stationed with,” he said. “It’s almost like one big family.”

Fitzgerald didn’t see combat as a mechanic, but some of his most memorable, and frightening, times were when he was stationed in Alaska. Aside from the bears and other wild animals, there were the freezing temperatures — one time the power went out for days — and a wild storm he got caught in while on the coast on a flatbed ship. “Terrifying” huge waves splashed onto the ship, and he didn’t know if it would sink or not.

Alaska was also the U.S.’s first defense to the north, which was also a stressful concept, he said. And because he served during the Vietnam War, it was a time of unknowns.

“You never know what could happen,” Fitzgerald said.

Douglas Metcalf — Air Force

Air Force Maj. Gen. Douglas Metcalf, a former Winter Park city commissioner, served for 36 years before retiring in 2005. His father and brother served in the Army, and said he grew up in a time when most men served. Metcalf wasn’t drafted but enlisted himself, and before becoming a major general in charge of logistics, his first job was in Vietnam as an aircraft maintenance officer.

Metcalf said that being in the military served as the foundation for the rest of his life and taught him how to be a leader and a responsible person early on while surrounded by people, who became friends, with the same strong beliefs in being a leader and defender of the United States.

What he hopes the Veterans Day event will do most is honor those who are serving now.

“They are trying to bring the rest of the world the same peace and freedom we have,” he said.


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