May is Military Appreciation Month, and Hanover’s veterans give us much to appreciate. Some have experienced history up close.
On September 11, 2001, Commander George Navas was serving in the Navy’s Quadrennial Defense Review Office at the Pentagon. His actions on that tragic day resulted in him being awarded the Meritorious Service Medal, which is awarded to individuals who have achieved distinction through outstanding non-combat meritorious achievement or service to the United States.
When al-Qaeda terrorists crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon at 9:37 that morning, Navas was in a third-floor hallway near the impact location. “I heard the aircraft before impact,” he recalls. “I heard it throttle up before it hit the building. I was close enough to be knocked down by the pressure.”
Navas evacuated people from the building and into the triage area, then helped firefighters navigate the damaged building, including the wall where the nose of the plane had hit. Navas began the process of laying our body bags – 16 members of the Navy Command Center were among the 184 dead.
On December 11, 2001, Navas held an extinguished Olympic torch at a ceremony at the Pentagon honoring the heroes and victims of the attack. He also represented the Navy at the National Memorial Day concert near the Capitol steps in 2002 and 2003. For a time, the Smithsonian Institution displayed the uniform he wore that day. In December 2001 Navas was personally congratulated by President George W. Bush during a recognition ceremony for “Pentagon Heroes.”
At a Memorial Day concert in 2002, Navas made a comment to a woman sitting in front of him about attending the services for the 16 members of the Navy Command Center died in the attack. “She then placed her hand on my cheek and spoke in grandmotherly fashion: ‘We went to hundreds.’ Her husband was a New York City Fire Department Battalion Chief, and her son was one of the dead in the collapse of the towers.”
Navas, now retired, is the current chair of the Hanover Veterans Memorial Committee. The committee helped plan the Veterans Memorial at Hanover Wayside Park, completed in 2007.
Committee members have a variety of stories to tell. Edward Baggett jokes, “I joined the Navy to see the world and never left Pensacola” (Florida), where he was stationed. “My wife has been on two cruise ships and she’s spent more time on a ship than I did.” Another member, Army veteran Colin Williamson, recalls that he was able to commute from home to his posts at Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Fort Eustis in Newport News.
Jim Legg, a Navy veteran, shared a different experience.
Legg worked at the Navy Photographic Center in the Motion Picture Unit during the presidency of John F. Kennedy as a film editor and sound effects editor. His unit took official photos of the president and his family including film of the president’s visits to the family compound at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.
On November 22, 1963, Legg was at the lab in Washington D.C. when the word came that President Kennedy had been shot.
Those terrible days were traumatic for the military as well as the rest of the nation. Not only had the president been killed, but military personnel feared there might be a war. “We were on lockdown for two days,” Legg recalls.
During those Cold War times, tension between the United States, the Soviet Union and Cuba was high. The alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was a confessed communist who had lived in the Soviet Union for a while and had recently sought to enter Cuba. Lyndon B. Johnson, sworn in as president following Kennedy’s assassination, said he appointed the Warren Commission in part to quell suspicions of a conspiracy after Oswald was shot to death while in police custody two days later.
Legg said he did not know Kennedy personally, having met him only once. But he grieved along with the rest of the nation for the promise lost with the young president. “We couldn’t believe that it happened,” he says. Even today, he doesn’t like talking about it. “It is personal,” he says.
Hanover’s military veterans have been on duty during perilous times in our nation’s history. Here in May and throughout the year, we salute them.
(Pictured from left to right are Hanover Veterans Memorial Committee members Colin Williamson, Bob White, Jim Legg, Edward Baggett, George Navas, Kelly Schips, Allen Burnett and George Sutton).