“I have never stood on a stage with a man with 12 air medals,” retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott Gray said. “So when I say you have a hero in your midst, please, understand the legacy that this man has created for our country and the good he’s done.”
Gray was introducing Tuskegee Airman Lt. Col. George Hardy to the stage for the Rotary Club’s ninth annual Veterans Day event on Nov. 11 at Temple Beth Israel. Hardy was the guest of honor.
Joan Sherry organized this year’s event. Veterans hold a piece of her heart partly because she’s married to one. Her husband is retired Brigadier Gen. Scott Wuesthoff. After discussing who should speak at the event, the general took a shot by email and landed his wife a legend.
Although Wuesthoff had never met Hardy, the two had something in common, so Hardy agreed to lunch and a speaking engagement.
“He was in the 99th fighter squadron, and I commanded the 99th line training squadron, which was the same squadron but had a different mission almost exactly 50 years later,” Wuesthoff said. “He’s just a great American and really living history.”
Hardy spoke of his 136 combat missions and how he applied to the Navy first but was rejected on the basis of his wisdom teeth not having fully grown in. When he went to his dentist to find out what was wrong with his teeth, the dentist said, “Nothing. You’re colored. The Navy won’t take you.”
Yet when thanked for his service, Hardy responds with nothing but gratitude. He learned to fly a plane before he drove a car, but both while enlisted. His family didn’t have a car to teach him.
“I learned everything in the service,” he said. “When we talk about giving to the country, I got a lot from the country.”
Gray moderated a Q&A with Hardy following his speech. He asked Hardy about his most memorable mission, which was 11 hours long. He got through it with a fractured bone in his elbow and a shot of morphine. By the time they landed, the morphine had worn off. Hardy tried to stand and collapsed back into his seat. He had to be helped off the aircraft.
Gray also asked if Hardy had any advice for young people coming up in the military.
“You’ve got to believe in yourself and learn,” he said. “Listen to your instructors.”
Out of the approximately 150 attendees, many were veterans and all left with a care package courtesy of Operation Gratitude. OG is one of Rotary’s nonprofit partners, which delivers care packages to deployed troops, first responders, veterans and their families.
Executive Director Suzy Brenner set up a booth to let veterans know about a new program at The Paradise Center called the Veterans' Canteen. Rotary is sponsoring the support group.
“It’s just a way for veterans to get together, share their experience and talk,” Brenner said.
The first group meets from 1-2 p.m. Nov. 16 and monthly thereafter through at least April. It’s a new program for TPC, so it is a test run. Refreshments are provided and walk-ins are welcome.
Mission BBQ catered the complimentary buffet. Sherry noted that their motto of serving those who serve made them the perfect pairing. Sugar cookies iced with “Thank You” were passed around after lunch.
The Manatee High School Junior ROTC opened the ceremony by serving as the Color Guard and presenting the flags. After, choirmaster Ann Stephenson-Moe played the organ while directing a group of vocalists, a trumpet player and a drummer through a series of patriotic tunes.
The veterans were asked to stand for their individual branches during the military singalong. While no Space Force veterans were in attendance or even exist yet, the newly added branch of service has an anthem already. The band doesn’t know how to play it yet, but Stephenson-Moe said maybe next year and played a video for all to hear.
Captain Robert Geraci stood tall and sang the Navy’s anthem. While never in combat, Geraci served those that were as an anesthesiologist. He made a deal with the Navy that he’d serve two years if they’d allow him to finish his medical training first.
The same students he’d been interning with, who thought he was crazy for making the deal, all got drafted to Vietnam in the midst of residencies, a fate Geraci avoided. He completed his two years of service at Portsmouth Naval Hospital in Virginia and then went into civilian practice.
“After a while, I began to realize that the patients I had in civilian life had a lot of choice as to where they’d go if they were sick and the doctor they would see,” Geraci said. “But I thought back to the Navy. Those poor sailors get no say in that. They did what they were told.”
Soon after the thought formed, he received a recruitment postcard in the mail that said something to the effect of “We’d like to have you back.” So after 14 years of civilian life, Geraci went on to serve as a Navy reserve for the next 20 years. He was called back for active duty during Desert Storm.
Geraci and his fellow veterans embody the Rotary motto to put service above self.
“Veterans, when you served, you looked outside of yourselves and sought to bring safety, stability, value and potential for success and growth for others,” Rotary President Jeffrey Driver said. “We thank you for that.”