Serving in the military is answering perhaps the greatest call to service in our country. It’s a decision that comes with great sacrifice but also with the honor of defending the our precious freedoms. And it’s a call to service four members of the Ocoee City Commission answered.
“Being able to worship the way you want to worship or think the way you want to think … it comes from the freedom that we’ve got in this country,” Mayor Rusty Johnson said. “Freedom, to me, means you can have the ability to enjoy life (and) voice your opinion — whether you like something or don’t like it.”
“(Our freedom) makes America the greatest place on Earth,” District 3 Commissioner Richard Firstner said. “We’re allowed to do whatever we want to do in this country, and that’s because our fathers and forefathers have fought for that right and defended that right and died for that right.”
However, the cost is mighty and has been paid for by the many sacrifices of the men and women who have served in the U.S. military, District 1 Commissioner Larry Brinson said.
“Freedom, as most of us understand, is not given — it’s not even rewarded to us,” Brinson said. “It’s earned by those who are willing to stand there and fight for and defend the rights of all people — regardless of their race, color, creed, ethnic background, religious beliefs or sexual orientation. When you start talking about freedom, understanding which freedom you’re talking about is important, but (what’s) more important, I think, is about who’s willing to fight for those freedoms.”
“We have men and women willing to sacrifice their lives to protect the freedoms of those that they agree or disagree (with),” District 4 Commissioner George Oliver said. “That’s what makes us special (as a country) because we’re willing to put our lives on the line for the sake of freedom.”
Mayor Rusty Johnson served in the U.S. Army from 1969 to 1971 during the Vietnam War. He signed up after he learned he was going to be drafted. It was a time in his life when he needed a fresh start, and it also afforded him an opportunity to attain a higher education.
“It was a time when I needed to be regimented,” Johnson said. “It was a good experience for me to get organized and on (a) straight path to doing things I should be doing. … I probably would have never got to go to college if it wasn’t for that.”
After his military service, Johnson returned home to Ocoee to take care of his son. He later attended Valencia College before going to Florida Technological University, known today as the University of Central Florida. Although his time serving in the military was over, his life of service to the community had just begun.
“I knew what I wanted to do in Ocoee: I wanted to see Ocoee (remain) a good place to be,” Johnson said. “I knew I needed to devote time to it and help do that, so my life choice was (just that). I could’ve done a lot of different things, but I wanted to help the city. … (The military) showed me what I could do to have the freedom to do the things that I do, and I wanted to share that.”
As a child, Brinson was inspired to join the U.S. Marines. He enlisted in 1982 and retired 30 years later.
“It was very rewarding — that’s first and foremost,” Brinson said. “I got to travel the world, which was amazing. I got to go places where I didn’t even know the names of the places (I was going to) prior to going there, even though they existed.”
Brinson also got a front-row seat to some events in U.S. history. He was in Israel in 1990 — around the time Operation Desert Storm was about to begin. A decade later, he was selected to work at the Pentagon and was a first-hand witness to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. When a plane flew into the Pentagon, he felt the force of the impact as he was knocked to the ground.
“It was pretty exciting to have first-hand experiences (of events) I’m able to now see in the history books,” Brinson said. It’s pretty impressive, for me, that I had done things that are now being taught in schools.”
Although Brinson is retired from the Marines, a new life of service began when he took his seat as a commissioner for the first time in March.
“I feel that now our community needs someone to make the same type of sacrifices in order to make a better way of life for us (in Ocoee), and I’m hoping to help with that,” Brinson said.
Firstner served in the U.S. Navy from 1971 to 1976 during the Vietnam War. He was active duty for his first two years in the Navy and then served in the Navy Reserves for the remaining years of his service. He was drafted into the military and chose a path that followed in his father’s footsteps.
“Rather than choosing to serve, that was chosen for me,” Firstner said. “I was No. 3 in the selective service draft lottery, but I did get to choose what branch of the military I wanted to go into. And I decided to follow in my father’s footsteps and join the Navy.”
Firstner spent 35 years in public safety after his military career. He served as a firefighter and as a police officer throughout those years. Of that time, he spent 14 years working with the Ocoee Fire Department, serving nine years as assistant fire chief and five years serving as fire chief, he said.
“As a citizen, one of our duties is to be involved with your community and serve your community,” Firstner said. “I’ve always been a public servant.”
Oliver served in the U.S. Navy from 1985 to 1995. He joined the Navy as a young man trying to navigate his way through life, and his service experience helped him with that.
“The Navy allowed me the latitude to be able to establish who I am (and) who I wanted to be, but it was all built on a code of honor, a code of service, (and) a code of servitude,” Oliver said. “The foundation was laid there by my parents, of course, but I think the Navy helped allow me to define even more what had been (instilled) in me as a young child.”
Oliver was in Somalia during the events that are portrayed in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down.” He was a legal officer in a construction battalion at the time and was in Mogadishu a few weeks before a Blackhawk helicopter was shot down.
“During that timeframe, we would get a lot of sniper fire daily,” Oliver said. “The Blackhawk went down, and we were on high alert as we brought in more Marines to try to salvage as much as they could from that helicopter because they had a lot of intel on it.”
Like his fellow commissioners, Oliver went on to live a life of community service after his time serving in the military ended. In March 2018, he became the city’s first African American commissioner.
“(Military service) allowed me to identify that I wanted to live a life of servitude, even beyond the Navy,” Oliver said.
Bound through Service
The bond among veterans is something Johnson, Brinson, Firstner and Oliver share. At times — when they disagree on the dais — they can still look at each other with a mutual respect knowing they are part of a unique brotherhood.
“We didn’t serve together, we didn’t serve as a unit, we didn’t perform the same job, but we all went through the same thing from the basic training all the way through completing our careers in the military,” Firstner said. “There is an unspoken bond when I meet another veteran or active-duty member. You just have that feeling because you know you’ve walked down that same path together. It gives you common ground to work from. It helps us in our jobs as commissioners, because we’ve learned to respect what other people think and say and feel, and it allows us to take that into consideration.”
“The military is a brotherhood and a sisterhood,” Brinson said. “There’s an invisible tie that binds us together, and I think we’re tethered to each other because of some of the things we’ve experienced. … People who were in the military understand there’s a decision-making process … and whether you’ve been in the military for four years or 40 years, that’s drilled into your head: how to make a decision quickly but not hastily.”
That bond among veterans is just one aspect the four men share in common — they also all want what’s best for the city.
“Now, my job is to keep this (city) moving in the right direction,” Johnson said. “I know sometimes I sound like I’m rough, but the whole thing to me is I love this place, and I want to make sure we do the right stuff.”
“There is a brotherhood (between us),” Oliver said. “We don’t always agree (on the dais) … but we do agree we love this country, we love the state of Florida, and we love Ocoee, and we agree that we want to give our best, give our all, to our city that we’ve been chosen to serve. I believe that we all have that in common beyond our military brotherhood.”