Spurred on by an old Marine who earned the Medal of Honor for heroics during one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, the students of Benjamin Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy undertook a mission.
Build the state’s first memorial to Gold Star families — those whose loved ones died in service to their country.
On a sweltering Thursday afternoon, 17 of those families, surrounded by students, local military leaders and others, gathered on the school’s front lawn to witness a mission truly accomplished.
“This really means a lot to us,” said Don Carey of Oldsmar, whose son, Marine Cpl. Barton Humlhanz, was 23 when he was killed Aug. 26, 2004 in Babil Province Iraq.
The memorial — four black panels with a cutout in the middle of a soldier saluting — is the brainchild of Marine Cpl. Hershel “Woody” Williams, who received the Medal of Honor for his heroism on Iwo Jima.
Williams told the gathered crowd that during one of his many speaking engagements, he met a man with tears in his eyes.
“‘Dads cry, too,’” the man said, according to Williams.
And that, he said, planted an idea in his head. Build memorials in every state that honor Gold Star families. History teacher Michael Tolbert heard about Williams, brought some information about his quest back to the school and the end result is a monument that brought tears to the eyes of families, like Don and Michele Carey, who are “humbled” by the efforts.
For more than a year, Franklin Boy’s Prep students have tackled their mission with gusto, raising about $45,000, through car washes, candy sales and asking for donations, which included gifts from the likes of the Sykes family.
Several times during the ceremony, Williams said the students “made history” with the memorial, high praise from someone who lived through one of history’s epic battles.
The ceremony began with the U.S. Special Operations Command Parachute Team jumping onto the school field. Aside from the Gold Star families, the guest list included Charlene Austin, the wife of Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III, head of U.S. Central Command, Andre Briere, deputy commander of the 6th Air Mobility Wing at MacDill Air Force Base and included a speech by Army Maj. Gen. Christopher K. Haas, Socom’s director of force management and development.
Trace Nuss, 14 and in the eighth grade, said building the memorial was a powerful experience.
“It is very important to show these families that we remember their sacrifices,” said Nuss.
The families in whose honor the memorial was built say they are grateful.
“This is an awesome memorial and it shows just what kind of characters these young men have.” said Carlos del Castillo, whose son, Army 1st. Lt. Dimitri A. del Castillo of Tampa was 24 when he was killed on June 25, 2011, in Kunar province, Afghanistan. “It bodes well for the future of the country.”