June 14 stands as an auspicious day for 60 men who once graduated from Officer Candidate School in Fort Belvoir, Va.
It was the date they were commissioned as U.S. Army officers in 1968. It is the birthday of the fighting force, which began as the Continental Army back in 1775, that they officially joined that day. And it is the anniversary of the 1777 adoption of the American flag, the symbol of the nation they swore to defend.
So when about 40 members of the 508th Engineer Officer Candidate Regiment gather for their 46-year reunion this weekend, Flag Day (June 14, of course) will get its due.
Robert Wilde, a Davis Islands resident and reunion chairman for the class, has spearheaded the commemoration not just for his fellow officers, but for the public.
The Flag Day ceremony, which is open to the public, will begin at 9 a.m. Saturday at Knights Point on Harbour Island. Color guards from each branch of the military will raise their flags in the order the branches were founded, concluding with the American flag. Two buglers from the University of South Florida will play Echo Taps, while Tampa's Christina Sanders Fontana and three other vocalists will sing the national anthem and other patriotic songs.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn will give the official greeting, and Coast Guard Cmdr. Scott Calhoun will serve as the keynote speaker.
The Class of 1968 was the first to entirely consist of college graduates, and unlike in earlier classes, many were drafted and had not participated in ROTC in college. Most were deployed to Vietnam before returning to civilian life.
"In Vietnam, we were in a fairly remote area," said Wilde, who served in Tay Ninh Province, near the border with Cambodia. "We would raise the flag every day and take it down every day, no matter how bad the weather or what the situation was. It was a symbol of who we were and what we stood for."
Blake Murray, a fellow member of the 508th regiment and a college friend of Wilde's, said he felt the full significance of the flag when he touched down in Washington state on his way home from Vietnam.
"I remember getting off that plane and seeing the American flag," Murray said. "On the base where I was stationed in Vietnam, I saw it, of course, but it feels different looking at the American flag when I'm on American soil."
Wilde and Murray both said they hope to raise the profile of Flag Day, which does not get the same attention as Memorial Day or Veterans Day.
"It's important to remember what it's all about: the flag and collective respect for our country," Wilde said. "We all occasionally have the chance to take a step back and realize we live in a great country."
Victoria Jacobsen can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2442.