“These families are giving the most precious thing they have, their children, to serve our country.”
Dr. Barry Booth at the military Enlistment Ceremony in the Medal of Honor Aircraft Pavilion at the USS Alabama on July 2, 2016.
Freedom isn’t free. It is easy to say, but the patriots and families gathered for the enlistment ceremony at the Battleship Memorial Park on Saturday know it is true. Surrounded by aircraft of the past, young men and women wore insignia T-shirts of the United States Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines and raised their right hands swearing to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
During the ceremony, mamas wiped away tears and streamed the event on cellphones. World War II veterans stood to be recognized and all veterans raised their hands to take the oath one more time, including 105-year-old Maj. John Jacobson, Alabama’s oldest living veteran. The ceremony honored those who “wear the cloth of our nation to defend the Constitution that represents the freedom of our nation.”
Children held American flags in front of the stage and said the name of veterans in their family. “Uncle Justin.” “My grandfather, Daniel Sharp.” “My grandfather, Rodney Henderson.” “Robert Hollingsworth, Navy.”
Dr. Barry Booth, one of Alabama’s most passionate advocates for veterans, unveiled “The Recruit,” an 8-foot bronze statue he commissioned to be created by artist Casey Downing. The towering bronze statue is a soon-to-be soldier with his right hand raised in salute, capturing forever the moment a recruit commits to defend the United States of America.
The ceremony ended with a prayer of thanksgiving from a grateful nation that asked for “protection for the ones who may be placed in harm’s way.” Honoring the ones present and passed, the crowd held hands for the benediction, proclaiming “I am an American and this is my American family.”
Spanish Fort High School graduates Kayla Guzman, Kane Gossman, and Arianna Swan, all 18, are going into the Navy to find their purpose and develop a bond that feels like family. They want to see the world and earn a college education.
“I am joining the Navy because I realized I am unprepared for the world,” Arianna says. “Student loans and financial aid are overwhelming. I needed to find a way to hold on and the military offers benefits with insurance and college. It is a chance to join a new family and to see the world. You can’t beat that at 18-years-old.
“I grew up with a single mom and I don’t have siblings. This is the first time I am going to have a family. The idea of me joining the Navy was a surprise because it was always about college, until I graduated. I was known for fashion design and runway and art shows, sewing, and cosmetology.”
“Switching to a boys’ world was a shock to everyone. Even to me. I will be a gunner’s mate and work on missiles and guns.”
Arianna’s mother, Trina Swan, says the Navy will give her daughter opportunities that she can’t provide. “I was a little relieved when she enlisted,” Swan says. “We were told she didn’t qualify for student aid for college because I made too much money, a couple of days later I lost the job I had for 10 years. There was panic because I couldn’t afford college.”
“The government is her best option for health care and tuition. I was impressed by her choice of becoming a gunner’s mate because that is a big jump from fashion to the Navy.” I have nine months left with her. I am going back into personal training and she is going to be one of my first clients.
Swan says she will have Arianna “in perfect shape so she doesn’t have to sweat boot camp at all.
“It will be one less thing for her to worry about and she will be at the head of the class,” she says.
“Do you know what keeps that dock afloat? Pier pressure.”
Tour guide Darby on the Gulf Coast Duck Boat
Across the parking lot from the Battleship is a vehicle that is not quite a bus and not quite a boat. Operated by Gulf Coast Duck Boats, it is filled with riders from Oklahoma, Texas, and Pensacola; tourists passing through to celebrate the holiday weekend at the beach.
“We have to come back with the same number of people, but it doesn’t have to be the same people,” said tour guide Darby, with a voice that was going out because she went to a Justin Bieber concert a few nights before (that was not a joke).
The white duck boat drove on the Causeway below the slow-moving beach traffic eastbound on the Bayway. Darby said the 7-mile Causeway was originally built in 1929 as a one-lane dirt road and cars had to take turns going across. Austal, the shipbuilder from Australia is the area’s largest employer with 4,000 men and women transforming aluminum into fast-moving littoral combat ships along the Mobile River.
Did you know Austal employs marsupials? They are more koala-fied.
There is a countdown to splashdown into Mobile Bay, a joke about making an alligator named Ginger snap and more facts as the boat floats past one of the state’s biggest tourist attractions. During its years of service, 2.5 million meals a year were served aboard the USS Alabama and the ship’s radar could detect an Japanese airplane from 143 miles away. More than 1 million students raised approximately $100,000 in nickels and dimes decades ago to help bring the battleship to Mobile Bay and the ship received a new interior coat of paint when it doubled as the USS Indianapolis in 2015, for a big-budget Nicholas Cage movie of the same name.
The beaches of Normandy were stormed from duck boats (the real name is DUKW) that move on land or water. They go about 6 miles and hour in the Bay and starting next week, they will drive through downtown Mobile.
A battleship and amphibious boats – reminders of past wars – are now catalysts of honor, history, entertainment and culture on the Coast. But young people still give their lives to protect our independence, and some still go to war. And on July 2, mothers and fathers stood among symbols of triumph in a memorial hall, preparing themselves to let their precious children go. They are the ones who understand our country’s freedom has never been free.0