Sometimes the result of something negative can turn into something really positive.
And that’s what happened last week when the United Teachers of Dade (UTD), the governing union representing Miami-Dade County teachers, organized a terrific event in Room 205 of Miami Springs Senior High School that turned a terrible “wrong” into a terrific “right.”
The special honoree has long since passed on — nearly 46 years ago, to be exact — but his memory will live on forever in the halls of MSSH.
It was 47 years ago that Virginia Gardens resident Bruce Wayne Carter roamed the halls of Springs High as a 17-year-old student. Less than a year later, he was gone, his life snuffed out, another “statistic” from the Vietnam War.
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But Carter turned out to be more than just a “statistic.” While there probably wasn’t a single death in the Vietnam war — or any other war, for that matter — where every individual who gives their life serving their country shouldn’t be considered a hero, Carter’s death stood out beyond so many others. His incredible bravery and ultimate sacrifice wound up netting him the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously.
Thus a plaque in his honor, which might have been considered a little on the “modest” side was placed in the breezeway entrance of the high school back in the ’70s.
Then came four months ago. That’s when somebody noticed the plaque was missing. Enter Tom Gammon.
Gammon was not only a former teacher at Miami Springs in the late ’90s but a retired lieutenant colonel in the United States Air Force and currently first vice president of UTD. Current Springs teachers Gustavo Rivera and Donna Bellamy, both UTD stewards, contacted Gammon to try to get the ball rolling to immediately get something back up on the wall.
With an innate ability to cut through the old “political red tape,” Gammon moved quickly to get a plaque three times the size of the old one produced, which ultimately led to last week’s dedication at the school. On hand were many dignitaries, including representatives from both Commissioner Rebeca Sosa’s office and that of State Representative Brian Avila; District 5 School Board Member Susie Castillo, UTD Secretary-Treasurer Karla Hernandez-Mats, herself a 1998 MSSH graduate; Miami Springs city manager Ron Gorland; Councilman Jaime Petralanda; and Mayor Zavier Garcia.
“It was very disconcerting for all the teachers when we found out it was missing,” said Gammon, who could only speculate that the plaque may have been taken down when the school was painted a couple of years ago, never put back and somehow misplaced. “We knew the heroism of this young man. When I was a teacher here in the late ’90s and being a military veteran, I used to bring my ROTC classes down to where the plaque was to talk about him. Here you had a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient who walked these very hallways and he was like a rock star of sorts.
“I knew Memorial Day was coming up and thought what better thing we could do as a union, so I met with our two union reps (Rivera and Bellamy) and the decision was made to redo an even bigger and nicer plaque and rededicate to him. And, to be honest, it was a blessing in disguise because the new plaque, unlike the old one that just had his name, tells the story of what he did so the kids now will be able to better understand that what he did was so heroic and showed such courage.”
Accepting the plaque was the woman at the center of everything for the last half-century, Carter’s mother and long-time VG resident Georgie Carter-Krell, along with her daughter and Bruce’s sister Cheryle Carter-Nevins, also an MSSH graduate.
“I’m really happy and grateful to both the United Teachers of Dade and Miami Springs High School for arranging this wonderful event today,” said Carter-Krell, who following her son’s death became a member and eventually national president of American Gold Star Mothers, whose members are comprised of mothers who have lost children in the military.
Aug. 7 will mark 46 years since Carter-Krell got the news that every mother or father dreads when their child is sent off to war.
That’s because of an instant decision her son made. With a portion of his squad outnumbered, under intense enemy fire and detached from the rest of the unit, a grenade landed between Carter and his fellow Marines. Without hesitation, he threw himself on the grenade and absorbed the full force of its detonation to protect his comrades. In an instant, Carter-Krell had lost her only son.
Two years later, Carter-Krell made the trip to Washington and, on the White House lawn, accepted the Congressional Medal of Honor from Vice President Spiro Agnew on behalf of her son, a fallen hero in the truest sense of the word.
Congressional Medal of Honors are the highest, most distinguished award a military person can receive. Of the nearly 2.6 million troops who served in Vietnam, Carter was one of only 239 members of the armed forces to receive the honor and one of only 57 Marines. Forget VG or the River Cities area. Carter is the only South Florida resident among those 239 honorees.
“I’m just always happy to be wherever they’re recognizing my brother and his heroism for the sacrifice he made for our country,” said Carter-Nevins. “It’s great to see the school is commemorating a day for him, especially since me and my sister (Pam) both graduated from here.”
Twelve years ago, thanks to the efforts of then-mayor Paul Bithorn, Virginia Gardens did its part by renaming Northwest 66th Avenue Bruce W. Carter Memorial Way. In 2008, the Veterans Administration (VA) hospital in Miami was renamed the Bruce W. Carter Memorial Hospital.
“I’ve gotten used to this by now but it never gets old,” said Carter-Krell. “It’s kind of in my DNA at this point. All of the different honors and recognition Bruce has received over the years is not only flattering but it’s important because our young kids today need to understand and appreciate the so many sacrifices that have been made for so long that gives them the opportunity to live with the freedoms that they enjoy today. I’ve been doing this for so many years, I don’t know any better. This makes me very proud.”
Garcia wasn’t by himself. Even though there were still two days of school left, he got his daughter Alexa excused to bring her along.
“Besides it being a special day for the Carter family, I think it’s something that is necessary to do on a consistent basis to remind our youth first and foremost of the heroes that served our community so they can see that a small-town local kid like Bruce Carter can make a big difference on a national scale and that being brave doesn’t mean that you have to be someone from a big state or something,” Garcia said. “That a small-town kid from Virginia Gardens and Miami Springs High School can serve his or her country and have pride in it. I brought my daughter here today because I wanted to make sure she saw something important like this happening.”
“This was something that Mr. (Gus) Rivera and Ms. (Donna) Bellamy approached me about and when they brought it to my attention, it was a no-brainer from the school’s standpoint,” said MSSH principal Ed Smith, who served as Master of Ceremonies for the event. “Here’s a young man who walked these very halls of this school and this plaque will serve as an education and a constant reminder for our students in this school today of what real sacrifice and bravery is all about.”