For the past 10 years, members of the Niceville Exchange Club have marked the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks with a powerful display of patriotism.
Each year, the club has created its Field of Valor – a collection of American flags representing all of the Floridian servicemembers who have been killed in action in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001. In recent years, the Exchange Club has broadened the representation to include fallen members of the Army’s 7th Special Forces Group, which is headquartered in Okaloosa County.
“This year, we decided to include the 13 servicemen and women who lost their lives during the withdrawal from Afghanistan,” said Exchange Club member Don Pardue, who supervised the creation of the display this year. “All told, we put up 403 flags.”
Pardue and about a dozen volunteers labored for several hours on Thursday night in preparation for the display’s opening ceremony on Saturday. Students from the STEMM Academy’s S2S Leadership Club joined members of the Choctawhatchee High School swim team and members of Manna Church in support of the Exchange Club’s efforts.
For Exchange Club member Tammy Summers, the display has a deeply personal significance. Her husband, Sgt. 1stClass Severin Summers III, was killed in combat while serving as an Army Special Forces engineer in Afghanistan in 2009.
“This project is very close to my heart,” Summers said after the volunteers planted the final flags on Thursday evening. “I look at all these flags, and I think about all the families who have lost a loved one. We need to talk about them and remember them.”
Retired Air Force Captain Nathan Nelson served as the keynote speaker at the opening ceremony for the display. Nelson suffered critical injuries while serving in Afghanistan in 2013. Today, he and his wife, Jennifer, actively support a variety of programs that support veterans.
While the array of flags is on display for only a week each year, Summers said the project is a year-round effort.
“Putting up all these flags is just part of it,” she said. “The hard work is installing all of the rebar beneath the surface, and then taking down and maintaining the flags throughout the year. It really is a labor of love.”
According to Exchange Club President Angie Toole, next year’s Field of Valor display will move from its current location at the old Mullet Festival site in Niceville to the Air Armament Museum outside of Eglin Air Force Base. The display will take place during the week leading up to Memorial Day, and will expand to include fallen veterans from time periods beyond the post-9/11 conflicts.
“One of the main things we need to make the Field of Valor successful is more members,” Toole said. “We need people who have a passion for honoring our military and our flag, and who are committed to making the community a better place to live.”
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