By HOWARD ALTMAN
As the senior national representative of France to the U.S. Central Command international coalition, Brig. Gen. Bernard Commins is a busy man.
There is the winding-down war in Afghanistan, the eastward advance of ISIL in Iraq, regional fallout from the latest Israel-Hamas bloody throwdown and, of course, the onslaught in Syria.
But with WWII veterans dying at a rate of more than 500 a day, one of Commins’ most pressing missions is bestowing Gallic gratitude on those who helped liberate his country seven decades ago.
Since arriving in Tampa nearly a year ago, Commins has taken part in four ceremonies, set up with the French consulate, where American WWII veterans have received the Legion d’Honneur, his nation’s highest military medal.
Commins, 57, estimates he has handed out about 50 of the medals. The concept was developed during the tenure of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who wanted to do something to show that his nation has never forgotten the sacrifices that freed France.
The son of a WWII veteran who served in Africa and Burma, Commins says awarding the medals is deeply moving.
“When I award a veteran, when we look at each other, I can clearly look at this man in his eyes, and I am very humbled, because I remember that at that time, they were maybe 18, 19, 20 years old, and they get the order to go there. To fight. To leave their country. To leave their family. To leave their beloved ones. And they did that and they fought. And thanks to this, we live in a free country, so it is always emotional for me.”
Last week, at the Tampa Bay Auto Museum in Pinellas Park, Commins presented medals to four area veterans.
Philip Melici, 91, of Davenport, was an Army private first class who landed on Normandy and built gas storage tanks while under fire.
Vincent Dematteo, 88, of Spring Hill, was a Navy petty officer 3rd class assigned to USS Maloy just off the shore of Omaha Beach on D-Day.
Orman Feltz, 93, of Lakeland, was an Army sergeant, serving with the 48th Tank Battalion in battles across France, starting in Normandy.
Robert Staib, 93, of Lake Wales, was an Army captain with the 524th Signal Battalion. He was wounded in action in Belgium on Dec. 28, 1944, and received the Purple Heart.
Commins, who has been in the French marines for 40 years, is no stranger to working with the U.S. military.
Two years ago, he said, France sent about 2,000 troops into northern Mali to battle jihadis in that African nation. Commins was the French land forces operations center commander.
“My mission was to set up the force, to build the force and to make sure that it could be sent in Mali by air or by sea in the minimum time possible,” says Commins.
And once again, the United States was there to help, he says.
“I really want to underline this,” he says. “The U.S. forces were very helpful. Thanks to their C-17 airlifters, they provided us a very, very efficient support and established a very important air bridge between Istres, an airbase in the South of France, and different airports in Africa, either in Senegal, but mainly in Mali.”
Commins says there are about 1,500 French troops in the Centcom region. In Afghanistan, their main role — responsibility for the Kabul airport — is about to be transferred to the Afghans. The French also have a naval presence in Abu Dhabi, an air force presence in the United Arab Emirates and troops in Lebanon.
He says the French, like everyone else, are keeping a wary eye on events just outside the Centcom region. The Israel-Hamas war, where the stakes were raised when Israeli ground troops entered Gaza late last week, “needs to be monitored very closely.”
Threats, he says, “are very seldom now inside the borders of a country. Threats, more and more, spill over borders of countries. The world is global, so some threats are more involved and widespread more and more. Everybody needs to take care of what happens around the area, it is clear.”
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A few weeks back, I wrote about a Government Accountability Office report expressing concern that with drastic reductions in war funding, the Pentagon needs to figure out how Centcom will operate within its base budget.
Absent instructions from the Pentagon on how to pay for “enduring headquarters costs funded by overseas contingency operations appropriations” and a time frame to transition these costs to the Pentagon’s base budget, the GAO said the Pentagon “may not be able to fully resource these activities once the funding decreases or ceases.”
Figuring that out is no easy task considering that in the fiscal year ending last September, $600 million out of Centcom’s $800 million budget came from war funding, according to the GAO.
Last week, during a House Committee on the Budget hearing, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa tried to find out how far along the Pentagon was in figuring out how to make that happen.
“We are working very hard to figure out how to do that, and it is not an easy problem to solve,” said Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
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Are you an amputee interested in joining the nation’s only all-amputee color guard?
AVAST is looking for you.
In 2012, the Amputee Veterans of America Support Team formed the color guard. The group of men and women in shiny silver helmets have been performing all over the state, and it now needs new members.
No experience is necessary, and training and uniforms are provided by AVAST. The only requirement is being able to walk short distances unassisted.
The next training date is Friday at the Terrace Hill Golf Course in Temple Terrace. But the group is flexible, says Rudy Salas, commander of the color guard and president of AVAST.
The color guard’s next performance is at the July 30 Tampa Bay Rays game against the Milwaukee Brewers.
For information, call Salas at (813) 928-1631.
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Salas isn’t the only one looking for folks.
WUSF Public Media is looking for nonprofit veterans service organizations and resources for a new project.
The station was recently awarded one of 12 Corporation for Public Broadcasting grants for the Veterans Coming Home project to support veterans as they transition to civilian life, according to WUSF producer and reporter Bobbie O’Brien.
WUSF is “establishing partnerships with key local veterans’ organizations. The partnership will help WUSF and CPB to recognize veterans’ service, share their stories and better connect veterans with resources and services at local and national levels,” says O’Brien.
The Veterans Coming Home local partner will help plan and promote a local community engagement event for Veterans Week in November. The free event is intended to inform veterans about educational and employment opportunities in the Tampa Bay area as well as services.
Most of the $25,000 grant will be used to hire a part-time community outreach coordinator “who will help me with populating the resources database, planning and promoting outreach events for veterans and their families, and to be available to talk to community groups, business organizations and veteran service organizations about the project,” says O’Brien. “To put it in my words, the position is someone who will serve as a ‘touchstone’ for the WUSF Veterans Coming Home project. We’re in the process of finalizing the hire — preference was given to hiring a veteran.”
The grant funds a position through December with the idea that WUSF will find funding to continue the position and project, she says.
WUSF Public Media is also seeking nonprofit veterans organizations to include in an online directory of veterans’ services and resources to be published at WUSF’s Veterans Coming Home website, http://wusf .veteranscominghome.org/stories. Interested nonprofit organizations that are serving veterans and their families in the Tampa Bay region may contact O’Brien at [email protected]
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I took a week off from the column while on vacation.
But I am happy to report that the Pentagon has announced no deaths since June 26.
There have been 2,323 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.