OAKLAND — More than a hundred local residents and former members of the armed forces gathered on site at 9 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 17, for the flag-raising ceremony preceding the dedication of a new home at 303 Cross St. in Oakland to a retired Marine sergeant and his family.
The new home was the sixth put together as part of Home at Last 2014, a special project of West Orange Habitat for Humanity that serves the families of disabled military veterans of recent campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It now belongs to U.S. Marine Sgt. Stephen Tovet and his wife, Krystina.
Retired Marines Master Gunnery Sgt. Jim Hawn, president of the Central Florida Marine Corps Foundation, was the master of ceremonies for the flag-raising ceremony, which included the presentation of the flags of both the Marine Corps and the U.S. to Tovet, as well as the dedication of a monument at the base of the flagpole in front of the house.
“This is a memorial that is based on what Sgt. Stephen Tovet wanted to say,” Hawn said of the monument.
“But today is also about Sgt. Stephen Tovet,” Hawn said. “Sgt. Tovet enlisted in the Marine Corps on the 26th of June 2006, taking his recruit training … in South Carolina. After recruit training, Sgt. Tovet went to Camp Geiger. Sgt. Tovet then moved across (Marine Corps Air Station) New River to (Marine Corps Base) Camp Lejeune proper, where he served as a machine-gunner with Lima Company, Third Battalion, Second Marines. But he didn’t spend all of his time at Camp Lejeune.”
In 2007, after graduating in June 2006 from Apopka High School, Tovet and members of his battalion were deployed to Iraq, fortunate to return in the following year without any casualties, Hawn said. Tovet and his division were deployed aboard the U.S.S. Bataan the next year, as part of a Marine expeditionary unit surveilling the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea, he said.
“They returned and barely got … unpacked, when there was a massive earthquake in Haiti, and so (the Third Battalion, Second Marines) was once again called out and went down to Haiti, back aboard their ship, the Bataan,” Hawn said. “Down in Haiti, Sgt. Tovet and his fellow Marines provided food and water to the Haitians and also conducted patrols … just to deter any kind of crime.”
In 2011, Tovet began his fourth tour of duty outside the nation in just five years. He and his unit were deployed to Afghanistan.
“Sgt. Tovet’s tour came to a sudden and devastating end when he stepped on a mine,” Hawn said. “Lima Three-Two lost seven people on that combat tour. The bronze plaque at the foot of the flagpole reflects Sgt. Tovet’s tribute to his comrades; it reads, ‘Remember the fallen; cherish the living; honor them all.’”
The blast of that IED occurred May 30, 2011, in Helmand Province. The explosion gravely injured Tovet’s left leg, left hand and lower right leg, which led to amputations of his left leg above the knee and part of his left hand, as well as surgical reconstruction of his left hand, lower right leg, ankle and foot. He was in a coma for about a week and transferred to the U.S. Army hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, before another transfer to the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland for further treatment and rehabilitation.
He ultimately returned to the Orlando area, where he was born, and reconfirmed his wedding vows with Krystina in 2012, after rehabilitation was complete. They had married in 2010 at the Apopka Courthouse while Stephen was on leave and were living in an old modular house in disrepair, difficult for him to navigate in his wheelchair.
FLAG RAISING AND DEDICATION
Retired Sgt. I.W. Hattcher Jr. and the Marine Corps League Detachment 1120, of Clermont, performed the flag raising, while an instrumental rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” played, followed by the Marine Hymn.
The public then had an opportunity to view the Tovets’ new home, before full furnishing. The home has several spacious bedrooms, a full kitchen and a two-car garage, all stemming from the foyer in the living room. It is all navigable for Stephen in his wheelchair, including a Roman shower he can roll straight into without a lip or door inhibiting his movement.
At 11 a.m., the dedication ceremony began at Oakland Presbyterian Church Christian Life Center, where the Marine Corps League again presented colors for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” this time performed by Wendy Proctor, and the Pledge of Allegiance.
A series of speakers culminated with Marine Maj. Gen. Michael Regner, the staff director of the Headquarters Marine Corps at the Pentagon.
The Tovets received a Bible and key before sharing their remarks and thanking everyone who supported this endeavor for them. Proctor performed “God Bless the USA” to end the formal ceremony for a barbecue reception.
Contact Zak Kerr at [email protected].