Jacksonville, FL - Veterans Day is a time we make sure to go out of our ways to honor the men and women who have served our country- but many Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia vets tell me that’s an appreciation they feel year round.
“They call [Naval Station] Mayport the jewel of the Navy, because it’s such a small community, such a great base to be at,” says retired Navy Damage Controlman David Evans.
Evans served five years in Norfolk and then about 3 ½ in Mayport. His most memorable time in service was a “Med tour” or deployment in the Mediterranean, on a new ship. He says that trip showed him countries and gave him experiences that most people would never get in a lifetime. And despite those journeys and his tour in Norfolk- a town entrenched in Navy history- Jacksonville was the welcome port to call home.
“The community in general embraces the Navy,” he says.
That sense of community is, by and large, the big draw for the dozens of local veterans I’ve spoken with this weekend. That includes Evans’ commander at the Mayport and NAS Jax Fire Stations, retired Air Force Master Sergeant Mark Russo.
Russo served 26 years in the Air Force, and when he retired he taught for a period of time at Texas A&M, but he tells me he never got the sense of brotherhood in that profession that he did while in the armed service.
“I would watch the fire truck go by and think, ‘Boy I’m really missing this’. So when they asked me to come back to the Department of the Navy, I jumped at it,” he says.
While he served first in Spain, Russo was happy to then become the Fire Chief at Mayport and Jax. He says leading the civilian crew became challenging in recent weeks of federal financial problems, furloughs and the partial shutdown. But that just showed him the true strength of this 109 firefighters, mostly veterans themselves, who continued to come to work with no hesitation.
“These guys know what it’s about to serve the country,” Russo says.
Serving is in Navy veteran Christina Hammer’s blood.
“Military all the way, through and through until the day I die.”
She comes from several generations of military men, is married to a sailor at Kings Bay, GA, and is teaching her own children about the importance of honoring veterans. She was teaching kindergarteners that same lesson when she tells me the most memorable moment of her service happened- the twin towers fell on September 11th. She also served in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Hammer says while she never served in the region, her family has put down roots now and feels a camaraderie across the military.
“This whole area is veteran, Navy, Marine, Army, Coast Guard friendly,” she says.
And she says the tight knit community that forms from that- in addition to the nice southeast weather- makes it easy to stay long term.
For Woody, retired Navy E6, the long term decision was just getting back to Mayport. He only served two of his 21 years of service locally, but it made enough of an impression to stick with him.
“We said if we ever had the chance to stay here for a little while we would,” he says.
Shawn Andrew Dioszeghy, who is active duty on the USS Farragut, traveled from his hometown in California to serve at Mayport.
“I was stuck in my hometown- and there was no way to get out,” he says.
Joining the military gave him that escape, and he tells me he really just wanted to see what the east coast was about. What’s he’s found in Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia is a community of open arms.
“People will be like thank you for your service, and I appreciate that,” he says.
For Veteran’s Day, Dioszeghy credits the veterans for forging the path that he is now on, and says if it wasn’t for the work of prior generations, he wouldn’t be where he is.
“I hope to fill you guys’ shoes as well as I can.”
Retired Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Eric Boggess says it’s a two way street- and that active servicemen must be honored as well.
“Keep doing what you’re doing and be safe out there, we’re proud of you guys,” he says.
He served 8 years in the Corps, including 3 locally, and met his wife in Jacksonville. He likes being in the area now because in addition to seeing his wife’s family often, they also perform work with Wounded Warriors, headquartered here in Jacksonville.
So while Jacksonville and Southeast Georgia are largely considered Navy towns, the veterans that come to live here come from all branches of service. When asked what they would want to say to their fellow veterans, all replied “thank you”, as did others who aren’t in the military to whom I asked the same question.
It’s that gratitude that shines on Veteran’s Day, but is a consistent sight for many in the region- and they’re hoping it stays that way for years to come.