Aim High… Fly-Fight-Win.
The U.S Air Force will be recognized on Friday night as the annual "Heroes Among Us” series kicks off at 6 p.m. in Veteran’s Memorial Park in downtown Pensacola.
"We’re in our third season of events now,” said Ed Rouse, Public Affairs Officer for the Marine Corps League, J.R. Spears Detachment 066, which sponsors the talks.
The "Heroes Among Us” highlights people from all branches of the military who distinguished themselves in combat operations.
Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward will make the opening remarks at the event, followed by two distinguished speakers – Retired Air Force Gen. Charles "Chuck” Horner and Retired Air Force Gen. Gordon E. Fornell.
Horner commanded the aerial forces in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. Fornell was the Senior Military Assistant to two Secretaries of Defense – Caspar Weinberger and Frank Carlucci.
But both men began their careers in the military very humbly.
"These men are both combat soldiers in Vietnam,” Rouse said.
Horner served as part of the "Wild Weasels,” piloting planes that acted as bait for surface to air missiles to lock onto and then destroying them before they could successfully bring the aircraft down.
"They would often fly over and provide cover for bombing raids,” Rouse said.
Fornell flew "Jolly Green Giants” – Sikorsky helicopters that rescued downed pilots, often in enemy territory.
"Both of these men were regular citizens who joined the military and ascended the ranks,” said Rouse.
Rouse said the Marine Corps League’s purpose in starting the series was two-fold.
"First, we really wanted to spotlight Veteran’s Memorial Park and make sure that people know that it is a living space,” he said. "People can visit it anytime – not just on Veteran’s or Memorial Day.”
The second was a way to raise awareness for the "Marines in Distress” fund, which started when veterans in the area found a fellow former service member in need.
Walter Mendez, a combat veteran in Somalia, was driving home from work and was in a collision with a drunk driver. He spent thirty days in the hospital, but when his insurance ran out, he had nowhere to go and no family to help him.
"The Marine Corp League began a distress fund for Walter,” Rouse said. "We began soliciting donations and volunteers to help take care of him.”
And when the call was issued, his fellow veterans answered.
"We managed to raise money to support him for 12 months,” Rouse said. "We had a corpsman who volunteered to check on him and change his bandages. Veterans came in and cut his hair. People just pitched in.”
The Marine Corps League also made sure that Mendez got into physical therapy, helped him coordinate with the Veteran’s Administration and supported his mental health.
"The doctors told us in the beginning that Walter would probably not walk again, but we never believed that,” Rouse said. "We’re marines.”
And ten months later, Mendez was back on his feet.
"We did what we refer to as ‘bringing him inside the wire’,” he said. "We took care of our own.
Following Mendez’s recovery, the effort continued and the "Marines in Distress” fund was born.
The fund has collected more than $30,000 to provide a "hand up – not a hand out” to military veterans of all branches in need of assistance.
"In that time, we’ve helped pay rents, get a veteran and his family into a new home with his service animal and helped people navigate the V.A. system,” Rouse said.
The "Heroes Among Series” helps bring awareness to the community of what the military means to the country and the community and the community has embraced the series as well.
"We’ve had great support from our local business community,” he said. "There have been grants and in-kind donations. They really support what we are doing.”
As for Friday’s event, Rouse hopes attendees walk away with a better understanding of the Air Force’s role.
"I want people to know what the Air Force has done for our national defense,” he said.