CLEARWATER — As a defense attorney, Douglas M. "Chuck" de Vlaming has helped countless Pinellas County residents.
But Friday he was recognized for the humanitarian work he has done in a country that he once bombed.
De Vlaming received the Clearwater Bar Association's highest honor at the organization's 48th Law Day luncheon and annual meeting at the Belleair Country Club. He was among four award winners at the event.
De Vlaming was given the Ralph Richards Award, which for the past 28 years has gone to the member who has demonstrated an extraordinary sense of care, dedication, concern and service to both the legal profession and the community.
"I'm shocked," said de Vlaming, 63. "I'm humbled that the Bar feels I'm deserving of this. There's a great deal of pride in this."
A 20-year U.S. Air Force veteran, de Vlaming was a fighter pilot who served two tours in Vietnam. He earned a Silver Star for valor in combat.
But it was what happened on Dec. 10, 1972, while flying a single seat, single engine A-7 light attack airplane over Vietnam that in part led to Friday's honor. On that day, de Vlaming provided cover for a helicopter rescue mission.
"In the years since the war, Chuck was haunted by a village that he had bombed with smoke grenades because in the process he had seriously damaged a church in that village," said Jeffrey Albinson, the Bar Association's president.
In 2006, de Vlaming made his first return to that Vietnam village. He made a generous donation to repair the church, Albinson said.
Last year, he returned and provide villagers with a fishing net for every family, a poncho for each person and a marble Madonna for the church. De Vlaming also met a woman who was injured as a young girl in the 1972 bombing.
"I felt very sad that people had to suffer," de Vlaming said Friday. "But I wasn't remorseful. I was doing my job and trying to protect a helicopter that had gotten shot up."
Attorney James Dodson Jr. told de Vlaming he was the "real deal."
"You stood up when you had to do the right thing," he said. "And you came back with the right heart. You are a patriot."
• Largo police Sgt. George Edmiston won the Allen Moore Gold Badge Award for outstanding law enforcement officer in north Pinellas County. He has been instrumental in developing ways for the citizens to bring their traffic concerns to the Police Department's attention.
• Mount Carmel Baptist Church won the Liberty Bell Award for outstanding service. Some 34 years ago, the church, then headed by Pastor Mac J. Williams Sr., set aside the third Sunday in May of each year to observe Law Day.
The church also collaborates with the Clearwater Bar and Gulfcoast Legal Services in sponsoring an annual legal clinic in which attorneys come to the church to provide free legal advice.
• Second District Court of Appeals Judge Nelly Khouzam won the John U. Bird Distinguished Jurist Award. She was honored based on her elevation last August to the Court of Appeal and her accomplishments in 15 years as a circuit judge.
• Palm Harbor University High School's Danny Silver and Thomas Garmon for winning the Great Debate.
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4174.