It’s been said over and over and will continue to be a mantra of democratic values and principles for generations to come:
“Freedom isn’t free.”
It was earned through the blood and toil of millions of men and women in uniform who stood ready to protect or defend. They are teachers, electricians, professional athletes, civil servants, judges and presidents. Some never served in a time of war; some were wounded in battle; and some are central figures in the indelible images of flag-draped coffins. Most became familiar with the notion they could possibly leave home and never return to loved ones.
On Veterans Day, the country honors those who dared to don uniforms to serve and sacrifice – regardless of whom they might be, where they served or in what capacity.
Men like 78-year-old Walter Stith. Stith grew up in nearby Wakefield, the only child of a farmer and homemaker. He has memories of a loving family, walking five miles one way to school and going to church via mule and buggy.
“It was a good life, now that I look back on it, but I didn’t always think so when I was young,” he recalled.
Inspired by an uncle who told stories of faraway countries and varied experiences as a Soldier during World War II, Stith departed the racially segregated town in Sussex County in 1948 for the newly integrated institution of the Army. For him, it represented the opportunity to live a better life that he feared was otherwise unobtainable and a way to carry out his civic duty.
“This is the only country I know, and I wanted to serve it,” he said.
Stith received basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., and advanced training as a clerk typist at what was then Camp Lee. From that point, he traveled the world, deployed in two wars, tallied 22 years as a Soldier and soaked up every aspect of the better life he sought from the beginning.
Today and for the past 15 years, Stith expresses his gratitude for his good fortune through volunteerism. The retired master sergeant offers his expertise to military members and their families as a tax preparer at the post’s Tax Assistance Center. He still comes to work every Wednesday to crunch numbers, despite having lost his wife four weeks ago. He said it’s the least he can do to repay his debt.
“I feel I have to give something back for all that the Army gave me,” he said.
Lorna King is also giving back to military members. The American Samoa native is a mobilization and deployment program manager at Army Community Service. The former air defense artillery and quartermaster officer relishes the opportunity to serve those in uniform and is proud to have made a contribution to freedom.
“I’m very proud to be a veteran,” she said. “To serve this country is a privilege, and it was a great honor to be amongst people who had a common purpose.”
One of 10 children, King said she was partly inspired by her father, a Marine veteran of WWII. She said he always conveyed to her that military service makes one a member of an exclusive club.
“My father always told us that if we ever got the opportunity to serve this country, do so,” she said.
King joined in 1984 and spent the next three years on active duty. She transferred to the U.S. Army Reserve in 1987 and ended her stint in 1992. The training, travel opportunities and experiences with people from various backgrounds combined to transform an island girl to a woman of the world.
“Being in the Army was my first big job,” said King. “It opened my eyes to a lot of things. It sent me to places of I never dreamed of going, and it made me a better person.”
King said her time in the military will always be a reminder of the price many have paid to preserve freedom.
“My father instilled in me that it is a privilege,” she said. “It’s a privilege to have a good life, to be here, vote and worship. In order for us to protect those freedoms, we’ve got to serve.”
King hasn’t stopped serving Today she is the spouse of a Soldier and works as a mobilization and deployment program manager at Army Community Service. The mother of two works closely with military members and Families, helping them to prepare for deployments. She said the job keeps her grounded and acutely aware of what military members sacrifice.
“I owe Soldiers,” said King, “because they’re the ones that continue to fight and protect our freedoms. Everyday they put on those uniforms and boots they allow Mrs. King to do whatever she wants to.”
Felicia Moore is a retired sergeant first class but don’t tell her that. She still goes about her day taking care of Soldiers like an Active Duty platoon sergeant as a counselor at the Army Education Center. It’s a natural fit for the South Carolina native.
“It’s all about taking care of the Soldiers,” she said.
As a counselor, Moore talks to many Soldiers on a daily basis, helping them to get equivalency diplomas, improving their test scores and assisting them in signing up for college courses.
“From what I did in the Army to what I do now, I can say they sort of balance out,” she said. “Here at the Education Center, I’m constantly working with the Soldiers, helping them with their educational needs.”
Helping Soldiers wasn’t the primary reason Moore joined the Army as a shower and bath specialist in 1980. She grew up in a rural area that lacked opportunities outside of agriculture, desired to improve her options in life and planned to complete one enlistment to kick start her career. After that first stint, however, she realized that the Army was more than just a job.
“After that three-year mark and all of the basic training, AIT and the other headaches and hassles, I realized that we were here for a good purpose,” she said. “It was beneficial, and I just loved being a Soldier.”
She loved it so much she stayed 20 years. Mentoring Soldiers was what she loved most. There were challenges being a female Soldier, she said, but she always wanted to present herself to subordinates as a Soldier who could accomplish the mission regardless of the circumstances.
“Sometimes, you want to give into the notion that you’re a female and you can’t do this,” she said. “But being a female, whatever I couldn’t do, we all did it together as a group.”
Moore’s positive outlook and tough-love approach, earned her the respect of Soldiers.
“When it was all said and done, they appreciated me,” she said.
That appreciation comes back to Moore tenfold even though she’s been retired eight years, she said.
“I see people all the time who remember me and say thanks,” she said. “I get a big rush out of that. It gives me a sense of accomplishment. I’m still serving, still helping the Soldiers.”
Andy Tutka likes to drive once or twice a month from his home in Richmond to pick up his medicines at Kenner Army Health Clinic, shop at the post exchange and chat with friends. In his spare time, he takes in baseball games and exercises.
Tutka is 92 years old.
“I don’t mind driving,” he said. “I like coming to Fort Lee.”
Meeting the jovial acquaintance of Tutka can be likened to opening a history book. He is full of energy and conversation and will gladly offer his life experiences to willing listeners. His conversations are dominated by his military service.
“I joined the Army Air Corps in 1939,” he said. “I didn’t want to work in the coal mines.”
Tutka, the son of European immigrants, grew up in Normantown, Pa., and worked the mines as a teenager. He recalled an accident in which he narrowly escaped death and that killed “five or six people.”
“I told my dad that I was never going into another coal mine,” he said.
Tutka’s military career as a communications supply specialist took him to several locales to include Langley Field; Hampton Air Force Base, Calif.; Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska.; France; Morocco; and Germany. His support of the Berlin Airlift in 1948 is the highlight of his career, he said.
“We did a lot of work keeping the planes flying and all,” he said, “I’m proud of what we accomplished.”
Tutka, who transferred to the Air Force in 1948 and retired in 1960 as a master sergeant. He is a member of an American Legion Post 125 and was active in Little League Baseball until recently.