Tuskegee Airman Rogers honored

BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — At the Second Annual City of St. Petersburg Veterans Day Celebration on Nov. 11, Mayor Rick Kriseman presented the 2015 Honored Veteran Award to Master Sergeant Willie Rogers, a member of the Tuskegee Airmen who served during World War II.

“Two thousand fifteen has become the year of Master Sgt. Willie Rogers in St. Petersburg,” Kriseman stated, “and with good reason.” The Mayor noted that not only did Rogers turn 100 this year, but also received the key to the city and was even honored with a portrait by the Veterans Art Center of Tampa Bay.

Drafted in early 1942, only two months after the United States entered the war, Rogers joined the Tuskegee Airmen, the name given to a group of African-American military pilots who formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces.

One of just 200 surviving Tuskegee Airmen, Rogers has received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest-ranking honor that can be bestowed upon an individual by Congress, Kriseman said.

The mayor also presented the Rogers with a flag that had been flown over the Capitol in Washington and a 2015 Tuskegee Airmen calendar. Kriseman explained that Rogers had done tours in the Mediterranean and had been wounded in action, shot in his leg and stomach.

“He recently said, ‘I didn’t think I was going to make it,’” Kriseman related, before turning to Rogers: “Sir, you definitely made it. You overcame resistance from enemies abroad and ignorance at home, and you’ve made your country and our city of St. Petersburg a much better place.”

Officials on hand for the festivities, which took place at the Veterans Memorial in Williams Park, included former Governor Charlie Crist, Congressman David Jolly, City Councilmembers Amy Foster, Bill Dudley, Wengay Newton and Cliff Smith, Manager of Veterans, Social and Homeless Services for the city.

“Today and every day I am proud to be an American,” Smith told the crowd. “We are the greatest country in the world because we have the greatest and the bravest men and women serving our country and protecting our freedom. I can think of no greater service to our country than what our veterans have done—putting their lives on the line to protect our freedom.”

Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance and moment of silent reflection, an expression of gratitude “for the men and women who throughout the course of our nation’s history have answered the call of duty and stepped up with the sacrifice of service.”

After Gina Maniaci, Team Leader of the St. Petersburg Vet Center, read a touching poem penned by a local veteran, Foster acknowledged the services and sacrifices that veterans provide for their country.

“Veterans dedicate themselves to serving a higher purpose and a mission beyond individual concerns and worries,” Foster said. “That selflessness, dedication, sacrifice should not go unnoticed and that’s why we’re here today, to say thank you.”

She acknowledged the efforts of those in the city that have worked with the Pinellas Homeless Leadership board, nonprofit organizations and the business community “to end veteran homelessness.” Foster also noted that shortly after taking office, Kriseman joined the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, launched by First Lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

The ceremony featured the presentation of colors by the St. Petersburg Police Honor Guard and the national anthem sung by the Gibbs High School Pinellas County Center for the Arts Choir.

Congressman David Jolly remarked: “You hear a lot about greatness today. The fact is generation upon generation upon generation, young men and women who have put on the uniform in the armed services and carried the flag, they have represented greatness… we recognize the greatness as represented in Master Sgt. Willie Rogers.”

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