Local Gulf Power veterans and community members take part in Old Glory Relay
PANAMA CITY BEACH, Florida – Patriotism and love of country was evident when a group of runners huddled in the early morning darkness Friday, Nov. 4 at the local Harley Davidson shop. While most people were still asleep or on their first cup of coffee, they were planning out the day’s mission – run with one American flag to Port Saint Joe, Florida, a journey of 51 miles.
Part of the 3rd Annual Old Glory Relay sponsored by Team Red White and Blue, the single flag has been carried by many hands and will travel more than 4,200 miles. The journey began Sept. 11 in Seattle, Washington, and will arrive in Tampa, Florida, on Veterans Day.
Sixty-two Team Red, White and Blue chapters throughout the country have been carrying the flag and passing it off to one another as a way to show support for the military and bring awareness to veterans’ issues. The Panama City chapter picked up their leg on day 55 of the cross-country trek.
Rick DelaHaya, a 21-year Air Force veteran and Media Relations supervisor at Gulf Power, said the support for the relay is a stark contrast to the levels of military support in 1983, when he began serving as a radar operator and eventually an air weapons controller.
“The community, especially here in Northwest Florida, has a deep love for the military and is very supportive of those serving, retirees and veterans,” said DelaHaya. “It hasn’t always been that way. To see the support we received along the way and to be a part of the journey as we ran with ‘Old Glory’ was an experience I’ll never forget.”
Others shared the same sentiment and the relay hit close to home for several of the team members gathered in the pre-dawn light. Team member Carrie Brooks’ dad served in Vietnam and her son is currently in the Air Force as a nuclear technician in Montana.
“We have an obligation to support our veterans,” Brooks said. “It’s our turn to step up and support them. The civilian world needs to step up and help them re-acclimate to a civilian world.”
After the ceremonial unrolling of the flag from the previous team from Fort Walton Beach, eight runners, easily identified by the “Eagle” on their red tank tops or shirts, headed out on the journey escorted by the Panama City Beach police department. Stopping traffic along the way, motorists honked and shouted words of encouragement along the route that proceeded straight east along U.S. 98.
The run, divided into 24, 2-mile legs, took nearly 12 hours to complete and crossed two time zones. The runners were treated like “rock stars” the entire route, receiving flashing-light police escorts from police departments from Panama City Beach, Springfield, Bay County, Mexico Beach and Port Saint Joe.
Each runner had the opportunity to carry the flag at least once during their portion of the relay. Most ran, some walked, but the point of the relay, according to Donnie Starling, Development project manager and Las Vegas Captain at Team Red, White and Blue, was about enjoying the journey, connecting with fellow veterans, and being part of a larger community.
“We are connecting veterans and those who served with exercise through social events like this,” said Starling. “This is one of those events that might happen once in a lifetime for many of these veterans and military supporters so we encourage them to interact with the community along the way and with each other. This is their journey.”
Connecting with the community was no more evident than on a long, lonely stretch of U.S. 98 between Mexico Beach and Port Saint Joe. As the temperatures rose throughout the day into the mid-80s and runners were getting tired, a single figure appeared on the side of the road. An elderly woman had stopped her car, got out and stood silently with her hand across her heart as a team of two runners passed her by.
“This one gesture pretty much brought a tear to our eyes,” said DelaHaya, whose fiancé was running alongside him with the American flag. “This is what this whole run was about in a single moment – support for our military whether still serving or retired. To say the least it was an emotional moment.”
Finally, after nearly 12 hours on the road, team members made the final push into Port Saint Joe. Tired, exhausted and a little sunburnt, 10 of the 20 runners who started the run crested the bridge crossing St. Joseph Bay and ended their part of the relay to the cheers of those gathered to support their efforts.
“It was an amazing journey,” said DelaHaya, who originally signed up for only six miles but ended up running 25 miles. “The relay is scheduled to run the same route next year and I know we will be there.”
This is the third year of the annual trek across the country for Old Glory. Local participants are part of a 10-state, 4,216-mile trek that has seen more than 7,000 people come in contact with Old Glory in some fashion.
In addition to raising awareness about Team RWB and its activities, participants in the relay have raised money for the organization across the country. Last year the relay raised more than $436,000.
To find out more about Team Red, White and Blue or the Old Glory Run, visit their website.
Gulf Power is an investor-owned electric utility with all of its common stock owned by Atlanta-based Southern Company. Gulf Power serves more than 450,000 customers in eight counties throughout Northwest Florida. The company’s mission is to safely provide exceptional customer value by delivering reliable, affordable and environmentally responsible electricity while strengthening our communities. Visit online at MyGulfPower.com or on the company’s Facebook page. News information can be found at GulfPowerNews.com.
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