TAMPA - The Purple Heart Memorial dedicated Saturday morning at MacDill Air Force Base is intended for all U.S. Navy members and veterans, but mostly it is a monument to Ronald "Ronnie" Ginther.
Ginther was 37 when he died from a mortar attack in Iraq nearly four years ago. He was a Navy reservist who worked for Pepperidge Farm in Lakeland only a few months before his death. He gave his daughter, Alayna, then 8, his dog tags and told her to wear them for good luck. Then he was off to a war from which he never returned.
The memorial at MacDill was created by Navy reservists specifically to honor those in Ginther's Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 14, which was hit by a surprise mortar attack May 2, 2004. It killed Ginther and four others and wounded 30 in the al-Anbar province of Iraq.
Six of the wounded came from the Tampa and St. Petersburg detachments in the battalion.
Each of them is honored with a bronze plaque on the octagonal monument featuring a stained-glass replica of the Purple Heart, which is given to U.S. service members wounded in battle. It also is presented to next of kin when servicemen die from wounds.
Steelworker 3rd Class Ginther has a plaque much larger than the six wounded. The Plant City High School graduate, who was raised in Dover and lived in Auburndale, was an electromechanic turned fighting man.
"Ronnie was a top-notch soldier," said Lt. Cmdr. Loren Jones, the executive officer of the battalion who attended the 30-minute dedication ceremony.
"That man was brave," added Lt. Chris Lynch, who also attended. "I could always count on him."
Jones said that dependability was probably why Ginther was selected to be trained as a gunner.
'Wounded Helping The Wounded'
Lynch and Jones both were there when the attack occurred, not long after Ginther and others arrived in an equipment yard at the Camp Fallujah compound to receive instructions.
"I was blown up into the air and lost my hearing," Lynch said. When his hearing returned, the air was filled with shouts and moans.
"People were down all over the place," Lynch said, "and I remember the wounded helping the wounded."
Ginther's widow, Donna, sat in the front row during the ceremony with Alayna and U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young. Donna Ginther wiped tears from her eyes while speaking afterward with Young, and declined to comment.
Three local Purple Heart recipients attended the ceremony - Equipment Operator 1st Class Douglas Alvarez, Construction Electrician 2nd Class Barry Klose and Equipment Operator 1st Class Bryan Williams.
Also honored on the memorial are Steelworker 3rd Class Michael Rambo, Steelworker 2nd Class Gregory C. Risner and Construction Mechanic 1st Class Mark E. Steffener.
They are all Seabees. "We build and we fight," Jones said.
Memorial's Creator Now In Kuwait
Ernie Nelson said the memorial was the idea of Equipment Operator 1st Class Walt Sauers. He and Nelson served on a committee with Ellis Blosfield and Larry Johnson to get it built with donated materials and construction.
"After experiencing the losses, Walt Sauers, who is now deployed in Kuwait, said we have to do something to remember them," Nelson said.
The memorial has a faux granite look, and was made of fiberglass on Styrofoam. It is 6 feet long, 6 feet wide and stands 4 1/2 feet. The stained-glass Purple Heart is illuminated at night.
"I drew up the plans and Ernie got his construction friends to volunteer," Blosfield said. "A lot of red tape held it up, but Sen. Bill Nelson finally helped get it approved.
"Today was surprisingly emotional for me," he said. "I'm glad it's finished. And to listen to Rear Admiral Raymond Alexander speak, to see the family members of the men, to hear taps - it really goes through you."