They are now honored in uniquely patriotic fashion as a StarMetro bus, custom-painted with proud faces of Tallahassee Purple Heart recipients, was unveiled Thursday in celebration of Florida's Purple Heart Day. It will make appearances throughout August at various locations, and it will be integrated into StarMetro's fixed route system.
The veterans, chosen by Tallahassee's Chapter 758 Military Order of the Purple Heart, represent more than 400 local Purple Heart recipients and all veterans. Midway into the ceremony at C.K. Steele Plaza, the bus pulled up under the plaza's pavilion.
Jason Shawn Hewitt, a Marine Corps and Army veteran, sat with Purple Heart veterans — listening to names and stories of soldiers painted alongside his face.
Their stories mirror his own. He served from 2005 to 2006 in Iraq and from 2009 and 2010 in Afghanistan. He was a gunner when his truck hit an explosive device. Knocked down inside, the 40-year-old was woozy. Shrapnel ripped his cheek.
In 50 meters another explosive even larger than the first struck his truck.
"I don't remember that one," recalled Hewitt, sharing his extensive injuries: traumatic brain injury, several herniated disks in his back, a torn rotatory cuff in his right shoulder and some vision and hearing loss.
Seeing the Purple Heart bus meant more than he could express.
"It feels great that I get to represent the younger veterans of my time and current day conflict," Hewitt said.
In 2011, StarMetro received a grant for the bus through the Federal Transit Administration Veterans Community and Transportation Living Imitative.
"Through the bus," Commissioner Nancy Miller said, "we're going to be able to really honor you and remind people as the bus drives around town of the sacrifices that have been made by you and others."
Commissioner Andrew Gillum said with the draw down of American military overseas, returning soldiers will know Tallahassee appreciates their service. He gave Mayor John Marks praise for being "a one-man trumpet" to thrust Tallahassee as one of the country's most veteran friendly cities.
"By today's action, we're taking just another step in that direction," Gillum said.
Col. Washington Sanchez Jr., 72, chairman of the Florida Veterans Foundation, injured while serving in the U.S. Army in an ambush attack in Vietnam, lobbied heavily for more veteran recognition. He was instrumental in helping Tallahassee become the country's first Purple Heart Capital City.
He said the hard work was worth it. More than anything, Sanchez wants bus riders and onlookers to think of someone who served when the bus rolls by.
"We are one of thousands of veterans who have served this country," Sanchez said. "We just happened to have received a Purple Heart."
This bus, he said, is for everyone.
To view a video go to Tallahassee.com/news:
To view a video of the Tallahassee City Commission Meeting regarding this issue go to this link. Note: The video of the meeting is over 2 hours long, but the Purple Heart Star Metro portion is at the beginning: