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VFW Heroes Dinner celebrates local veterans

Retired U.S. Army Col. John Reitzell on Friday night received a painting recounting some of the best-known incidents of his largely classified special operations career. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN - On Friday evening, Cullman area veterans, their families and friends and local dignitaries gathered at Top of the Town for Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 2214’s fifth annual Heroes Dinner. Local veterans were honored, and the crowd welcomed keynote speaker, Vietnam veteran and counterterrorism operator Retired U.S. Army Col. John Reitzell and his wife Glenda.

The evening’s invocation was offered by Dr. Tom Barnes, West Point graduate, Vietnam Purple Heart recipient and VFW Post 2214 chaplain; Wallace State Singers Director Tiffany Richter sang the national anthem as the Cullman Sons of the American Revolution presented the colors.  Duke Cleghorn of the Wallace State Singers entertained the audience with “Proud to be an American.”

Master of Ceremonies, retired U.S. Air Force Col. Ken Brown, introduced the evening’s honored heroes:

  • Julian Campbell, U.S. Army and Air Force pilot in World War II, Korea and Vietnam
  • Thurman Ryan, U.S. Navy, WWII veteran of the Battle of Okinawa
  • Ralph Bryson, helicopter gunship pilot, ranger, pathfinder in Vietnam
  • Dr. Tom Barnes, West Point graduate, Vietnam veteran, and Purple Heart recipient
  • Bill Korwatch, U.S. Marine Corps, recipient of two Purple Hearts in Vietnam
  • John Caspar, U.S. Air Force, Vietnam veteran fighter pilot
  • Steve Larson, U.S. Marine Corps, recipient of two Purple Hearts in Vietnam
  • Rick Leigeber, U.S. Army, recipient of two Purple Hearts in Vietnam
  • David Grissom, U.S. Army Ranger, recipient of a Purple Heart in Vietnam
  • Robert Stephens, U.S. Army, helicopter pilot, recipient of a Purple Heart in Vietnam
  • Robert Turner, U.S. Marine Corps, recipient of two Purple Hearts in Vietnam
  • Will Harris, U.S. Army Special Forces, recipient of a Purple Heart in Vietnam
  • Jason Harris, son of Will Harris, U.S. Army cavalry scout/sniper
  • Bruce Nelson, U.S. Army, Iraq War veteran military policeman
  • Mitchell Maddox, U.S. Marine Corps, Lebanon veteran and survivor of the 1983 Beirut Marine barracks bombing
  • Dr. Michael Schendel, U.S. Army, Desert Storm veteran medic
  • Brian Monk, U.S. Army, Iraq War veteran with Cullman’s 167th Infantry Co. C
  • Gregg DeBoer, U.S. Army, Kosovo 1999 and Iraq 2003 82nd Airborne engineer
  • Greg Leipert, U.S. Army, Iraq War veteran communications specialist
  • Matt Clayton, U.S. Army, Iraq and Afghanistan 82nd/101st Airborne veteran
  • Katy Clayton, wife of Matt Clayton, U.S. Army, Korea, 2011-12
  • Michael Elston, U.S. Army medic, veteran of five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan

Keynote speaker Reitzell is a 28-year U.S. Army veteran who served in the 82d Airborne Division and 173rd Airborne Brigade, 2d Infantry, 4th Infantry, 2nd Armored Division, and commanded the 1st Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment.  He is a Ranger and holds three Legions of Merit, four Bronze Stars with “V” device for valor, the Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman’s Badge and Master Parachutist Badge, among others. He retired as chief of staff of the U.S. Army Infantry School at Ft. Benning, Georgia.

Reitzell is best known today for the things he can least discuss: 36 mostly classified counterterrorism missions.  He regaled the crowd with accounts of his now unclassified (thanks, in part, to Tom Clancy’s book “Shadow Warriors”) participation in the resolution of the hijackings of the cruise ship Achille Lauro and TWA Flight 847.

Reitzell concluded by talking about the current status of America’s most well-known special operations units: the Army’s Delta Force and Navy SEAL Team Six, and called on the audience the ask God to “take care of those boys, because they’re taking care of us. I guarantee it.”

After his address, the VFW presented Reitzell a painting by  local artist Pamela Willingham featuring the colonel and recounting his participation in the Achille Lauro and TWA 847 incidents, as well as the Grenada invasion.

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