Navy veterans return to old training site in Baldwin Park

Veterans come together

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  • | 9:00 a.m. November 10, 2016
Photo by: Sarah Wilson - A reunion last month brought together Navy veterans who had trained at RTC Orlando - a former training facility that is today the site of Blue Jacket Park in Baldwin Park.
Photo by: Sarah Wilson - A reunion last month brought together Navy veterans who had trained at RTC Orlando - a former training facility that is today the site of Blue Jacket Park in Baldwin Park.
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As she watched the soil of Orlando slowly inch closer through her cabin window, Martha Hernandez Blair found her eyes welling with tears. By the time the wheels touched down, those tears were making rivers down her cheeks.

The last time she flew in here, it was 1973 and she was on her way to Naval boot camp at Recruit Training Command Orlando. It was her first time on her own, her first time away from home.

“It was a big deal,” she said.

Six months earlier, Kathy Nielsen made the same flight. It was her first trip on an airplane, and she arrived in the middle of the night.

“I remember when I got here thinking, ‘What they hell did I get myself into?’” Nielsen said.

Both women were part of some of the earliest female companies to train at the Orlando base. Forty-three years later, on Oct. 13, they found themselves – along with 200 or so other veterans – back on the hallowed ground where they’d once trained.

In folding chairs seated between baseball and soccer fields, the veterans reminisced on what Blue Jacket Park once was: home to the U.S.S. Blue Jacket, where 650,000 earned the right to call themselves sailors. The only physical reminder of what once was stands more than 7 feet above the crowd. The Lone Sailor Memorial statue, unveiled earlier this year, reminds the Baldwin Park community of its Naval history, a history that comes to life as the RTC Orlando Reunion attendees search for a sliver of familiarity in the sprawling grassy park.

“I know the base isn’t here, but I still get that feeling,” said reunion organizer Tracey Tillman, pointing to the small bumps rising on her arms. “It gives me chills.”

Nielsen thinks her barracks were just beyond the basketball courts. Blair remembers the park area being home to the pray yard and grinder where they trained and would eventually graduate.

“I think I have pictures of those trees when they were just sticks,” Nielsen said pointing to a row of towering oaks.

The pair, good friends after meeting while stationed in Norfolk, Va., after their Orlando training, remember the struggle of being women integrated into a previously male-only training center. They weren’t allowed to train with rifles or in firefighting. They never trained to man a ship. Instead, Nielsen said, she remembers taking a short class on how to apply makeup that would appropriately match her uniform and struggling to fold her uniform-mandated girdle.

The women weren’t allowed to speak with the male recruits – referred to as “trees” – except for at church. So, Nielsen said with a laugh, obviously everyone attended church. The women got in trouble if they left the seats down in the bathroom, being called out of bed to put them back up.

It was a different world back then, they agreed.

Kim Barrack, Marlene Jordan Sweet, and Darlene Willoughby trained in the same company at RTC Orlando in 1981. The reunion last month was the first time the trio had seen each other since.

“It’s amazing,” Sweet said, surveying the park. “A lot of good and bad memories here.”

Willoughby said a bug landed on her halfway into the National Anthem, which kicked off the reunion ceremony. “It was just like boot camp,” she said with a laugh. “I couldn’t move to get it off.”

The trio remembers the searing hot surface of the ground during their summer of training that left indentations of pebbles cast into their palms. With no sunscreen, each girl, they said, had the same matching sunburn. Willoughby touches her earlobes, remembering the pain of having them fried to a crisp in the Florida sun.

The women would report to bed every night at 21:25. Barrack said she never even remembers hearing the 21:30 call for lights out. She was always already asleep.

Looking around Blue Jacket Park today, the women said nothing seems familiar. The base was closed in 1995, and reduced to rubble by the turn of the new millennium. Brick by brick, Baldwin Park would take its place.

Aside from a small plaque at Blue Jacket Park and a few streets named in memory of the military history, the community’s Naval connection was sparsely celebrated, until this year. The installation of the bronze-cast Lone Sailor Memorial in Blue Jacket in April gave history a face: a 7-foot-tall sailor recruit waiting seaside for his ship to come to port.

And the Central Florida Navy League has plans to make the sailor a little less lonely next year. The group is in the midst of “Project Sparky,” which aims to install a female sailor statue to add to the memorial in honor of the 188,000 women who trained at the base.

“It may not look like we remember,” Sweet said. “But at least they’re remembering us.”

Navy League member, and former RTC Orlando recruit, Carla Hoskins posed for her likeness to be cast as the female statue. It felt good, she said, to slip back into uniform and grip the cutlass in her hand.

“I think any of us, if given the opportunity,” she said looking out at the reunion crowd, “we’d all put the uniform back on in a heartbeat if we could.”


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