By Jennifer Logue
Ernie Florig has a special appreciation for the freedoms many Americans take for granted.
A 30-year Air Force veteran and commander of American Legion Post 129 in Jacksonville Beach, Florig grew up on the island of Guam.
“My parents were children when the Japanese occupied Guam during World War II,” Florig said. “They had their freedom taken away from them, so patriotism was always big in our house.”
Florig was just one of numerous local veterans who were honored at “Celebrate the Night,” a candlelit evening ceremony to express gratitude to U.S. veterans and the men and women serving our country. Held Nov. 10 at the Nease High School stadium, “Celebrate the Night” invited local residents to purchase a luminary candle bag in honor or memory of a loved one who served in the military. Those bags lined the track at the stadium during the ceremony, creating a “Path of Heroes” honoring local veterans.
“I am so thrilled by all the love and support,” said Tammy Greco, who organized the event as a fundraiser for Valley Ridge Academy and the Nease High School Band after a chance encounter with a K9s for Warriors trainer awakened an awareness of the struggles many veterans face when they return to civilian life. “(Celebrate the Night) was a night to show our veterans we appreciate their sacrifices.”
The ceremony began with the Pledge of Allegiance, after which all children in attendance were invited down onto the track to participate in an opening march behind members of the Nease NJROTC program, who presented the colors as the Nease band played the national anthem.
Volunteers shared a poem and words of gratitude, followed by dancers from Atlantic Coast Dance Studio, who performed a specially choreographed routine to “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
Florig and fellow veteran Jerry Brandt then shared their stories with attendees before local children presented the veterans in attendance with certificates honoring their service and sacrifice. Organizers also recognized volunteers with certificates, and honored K9s for Warriors, representatives of which were on hand to share information about the nonprofit that provides specially trained service dogs to veterans struggling with PTSD and traumatic brain injury. A portion of the proceeds from “Celebrate the Night” will benefit K9s for Warriors, Greco said.
The ceremony concluded with a tribute to fallen veterans: Following a moment of silence and a musical tribute, attendees were invited to stand, bow their heads and place their hand on the shoulder of the person next to them, creating a “chain of unity” as Taps was played.
Yet even as attendees expressed gratitude to America’s military men and women, veterans returned that sentiment, presenting Greco with a patriotic angel pin and thanking attendees for their love and support.
“I hear a lot of people say they support our troops – but they don’t show it,” Florig said. “You people all have busy lives, but you took the time be here tonight. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you and salute you.”