86 veterans lined up for a photograph at the WWII Memorial during the 2023 Polk Veterans Council Flight to Honor. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

As a young U.S. Marine private, Ray Dobles spent most of his two-year tour of duty in Guantanomo Bay, Cuba, guarding the perimeter of the U.S. military base and hoping he wouldn’t be shot by Fidel Castro loyalists on the other side of a vast mine field.

“It was the world’s largest minefield – that’s what I was told,” said Dobles, who was in the Marines from 1971-1973. “And even then, Cubans used to try to get over to our side. I saw a lot of things and it used to bother me.”

On Tuesday, Dobles, who turned 72 years old 10 days before the trip, was one of 86 U.S. military veterans who boarded a chartered Allegiant Airlines jet before dawn at Lakeland Linder International Airport as part of a Polk Veterans Council Flight to Honor.  Along for the ride were 87 guardians, including this LkldNow reporter, Mayor Bill Mutz and his wife Pam, two Polk County sheriff’s deputies, at least four paramedics, and half a dozen additional volunteers. A special visitor turned up to greet his father when the group arrived at the World War II Memorial.

Flight To Honor

Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Gary Clark and a squadron of volunteers organize the trip each year. This week’s Flight to Honor was their eighth whirlwind, one-day visit to the nation’s war memorials. The majority of the veterans on the trip served in Vietnam or during the Vietnam War era, with a smattering of Korean War veterans and four WWII servicemen.

“This is important to a lot of these guys,” Clark told the guardians during an orientation. He became emotional as he spoke. “They never got the welcome home they deserved.”

Each trip typically costs about $100,000, but the total fluctuates due to the price of jet fuel. Three years ago, the fuel was $6,000. This year, it was $18,000. And that bumped up this year’s price tag to $110,000.

No veteran pays for his or her ticket – nearly two dozen local companies, along with donations from the public, sponsor the trips. They include Chapters Health Valor Foundation, which funded about 45% of this year’s trip, CPS Cares and Coca-Cola. There were several guardians from Coke on the trip.

Clark said he sees his work to do this as “continuing commitment to service above self by and for those who have served.”

The parking lot at Lakeland Linder was packed by 4 a.m. Tuesday morning, with veterans arriving decked out in their donated red polo shirts and red windbreakers.  Their guardians sported blue polos and windbreakers and each had a tag with the names of the people with whom they had been paired. As they made their way into the terminal, security briefly checked their belongings before they lined up for breakfast.

All meals were donated, which included breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks … but no C-rations or MREs (meals ready to eat). Chick-fil-A donated chicken sandwiches for breakfast and Publix gave bananas. Arby’s turkey or beef sandwiches were served on the bus for lunch and Mission BBQ donated pork or chicken sandwiches, which were handed out as everyone boarded the plane home. In a nod to a habit many military personnel developed, candy cigarettes were given out in the snack bags, eliciting a chuckle from some.

His Father’s Service

Every veteran has a story, but some choose never to tell it, taking their battles to their graves.

Dobles said his father was like that. Growing up, he never knew that Ramon Dobles fought in three major campaigns in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East during WWII until a Veterans Administration official told him years later.  He still doesn’t know how his father’s back became covered in scars or what he did to earn the medals that are noted on his father’s DD-214 discharge paper.

The United States entered WWII on Dec. 7, 1941, after Japanese aircraft bombed Pearl Harbor Naval Base in Hawaii, sinking four battleships and a tug boat, destroying 188 aircraft, damaging four other battleships, three destroyers and three light cruisers.  It also killed 2,335 people and wounded another 1,143. It crippled the U.S. Pacific fleet.

The United States immediately began mobilizing to fight in Europe, where German Chancellor Adolph Hitler, who was aligned with Japan and Italy, had already begun fighting after invading Poland and Eastern Europe in the 1930s, and bombing England. The fighting eventually engulfed all of Europe, killing millions of people and laying waste to many towns and cities. A second war theater took place in the Pacific, where Allied Forces fought against the Japanese at sea and on multiple islands.

In all, 70-80 million people, mostly civilians, died during WWII, making it the most deadly war in history.

Dobles once went with his father to the VA to file some paperwork and that’s when he was given one piece of his father’s puzzle.

“The man at the VA kept looking at my father’s record and looking at me. He finally said, ‘If anybody mistreats your father, you give me a call,’” Dobles recalled. “’Your father is the second person I’ve met who was in every major (European campaign) in World War II.’”

Dobles said the man at the VA helped fill in a little bit of one thing that always confused him.

“My father was blind for like a month,” he said. “I always thought they were freckles around his eyes. But they were scars from a hand grenade. I asked, ‘Why doesn’t he get a pension?’ The reason my father doesn’t get a pension is because when he got his sight back, he walked out of the hospital on his own because he wanted to go back. He would have gotten the pension, the Purple Heart.”

Dobles said when he was five or six years old, his mother called him into the kitchen of their Paterson, N.J., apartment and handed him a bar of soap to give to his father, who was taking a bath. Dobles walked into the bathroom and handed his father the soap. As he was walking out, Dobles turned and saw his father’s back covered in scars.

“I went to my mom and said, ‘Pop’s got a bunch of scars on his back!’ and she said, ‘Don’t ever ask him about those,’” Dobles recalled. And he never did.

Dobles shared his father’s DD-214 with this LkdlNow reporter, who showed it James Ring, a U.S. Army reservist and the outreach director for U.S. Rep. Scott Franklin, R-Lakeland. Ring translated some of the military language on the form.

“From the looks of it, he did a lot of traveling,” Ring said. “He earned a combat infantry badge, so he saw armed combat.”

The DD-214 shows that Ramon Dobles joined the U.S. Army on April 1, 1941, and mustered out in December 1945. It lists Rome-Arno, Rhineland, and Central Europe as the battles and campaigns in which he participated. The decorations and citations listed are:

  • American Defense Service Medal with Clasp
  • European, African, Middle Eastern Theater Service Medal with three Bronze Stars
  • World War II Victory Medal
  • Good Conduct Medal with Clasp
  • 7 Overseas Service Bars

The document also shows that Ramon Dobles contracted yellow fever in July 1941 and influenza in October 1945.

But it doesn’t show that he was wounded or blinded, even temporarily.  Ring said that could be on another form. Ring said Franklin’s office is going to try to help Dobles obtain duplicates of the medals once Dobles signs a privacy form and acquires his father’s full service record. Dobles said his brother might have some of the medals. The U.S. government will replace medals once for free.

“It’s apparent from his service record, PFC Dobles was a decorated combat veteran,” Ring said. “Our office would be more than happy to assist his family with obtaining replacement medals from the National Personnel Records Center. We know these medals can hold great sentimental and symbolic value to our veterans and their families, and it’s important for us to support them in obtaining replacements if they have been lost or damaged. One of my favorite duties is having the honor of delivering medals to veterans throughout the district.”

Because of his father’s service, Dobles had the World War II Memorial at the top of his list of places he wanted to see in Washington, D.C., during the Flight to Honor. He said he had heard his father was involved in the D-Day invasion of France – the DD-214 shows that he was deployed in Europe during that time, so it is possible.  He has also heard that his father drove Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, although he is not sure where or for how long.

Tour of Duty

The Allegiant Airline jet arrived at Baltimore Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport an hour ahead of schedule. As the plane taxied to the gate, firetrucks created an arch of water to honor the veterans onboard. After waiting for the tour buses to arrive and taking a 90-minute, at-times-crawling, ride from the airport into Washington, D.C., the crowd from Polk County stepped off the buses at 11 a.m., giving the veterans an hour and half to see the memorials.

The WWII Memorial is divided into the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters, marked by large pavilions, with a fountain in between. It is surrounded by columns for all 50 states, along with U.S. territories. One wall displays 4,048 gold stars, each representing 100 American servicemen and women killed in the war.  

Dobles wandered toward the Atlantic side of the memorial, stopping to read some of the phrases carved in marble.

“Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid.  They have earned our undying gratitude. America will never forget their sacrifices,” reads one marker, quoting President Harry Truman, commander-in-chief when the war ended.

The monument is dedicated to the 16 million American servicemen and women who fought against the fascist regimes of Hitler and Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini, along with constitutional monarch Emperor Hirohito, who was manipulated by Japanese militarists. The three countries made up the Axis Powers.

Mayor Bill Mutz escorted Frank Kurowski of Haines City. He was in the Navy during World War II, but remained stateside. Mutz spent the day pushing Kurowski’s wheelchair and talking with the veteran about his service.

“I consider it a privilege to be able to support our veterans and it heightens our appreciation,” Mutz said. “When we visit the memorials, it’s wonderful, really powerful, to watch their faces as they reflect. This is always the way to me to appreciate the memorials.”

Standing by the memorial’s fountain, volunteer William Geasa talked about his father-in-law’s service in Germany toward the end of the war. He was tasked with going to the concentration camps where millions of Jews and others Germans considered “undesirable” (such as the handicapped, gays, and anyone who opposed Hitler) died – killed with poisonous gas and/or placed in cremation ovens until their bodies turned to ashes.

“He buried the ashes in a place where they would be respected,” Geasa said. Geasa added that he was often invited to talk to history classes in Chicago about his father-in-law.

Dobles said when he was a construction worker in New Jersey, he would occasionally do work in synagogues.  He saw that the children in Jewish schools were taught about the Holocaust, when Jews were killed because of their religion, and shown graphic photographs of the concentration camps, including emaciated prisoners and bodies placed in piles.

“They don’t want them to ever forget,” Dobles said.

When asked about two visits in the last six months of Neo-Nazis to Lakeland and what he might say to the men who have been distributing anti-Semitic literature, a little anger flared in Dobles.

“I know I would hit ‘em with a baseball bat,” he said.

Dobles walked over to the Puerto Rico column at the WWII Memorial, a bronze wreath hanging above its window-like opening. For him, the column symbolizes the place of his birth and his family’s roots.

Ray Dobles’ Service 

To some degree, Dobles is like his father about his service. But he opened up on this trip, telling stories he wants his sons, Christopher and Matthew, and adult granddaughters, Alyssa and Joscelyn Dobles, to know about one day.  They included his military service, stories about his handicapped son, Alex, and his deep and abiding Christian faith.

Dobles was born in his grandmother’s home in Puerto Rico, a U.S. Territory since 1898. Puerto Ricans have been U.S. citizens since 1917. Puerto Ricans are as much Americans as anyone born on the mainland, although those living on the island can’t vote in presidential elections.

The Dobles family moved to Paterson, N.J. when Dobles was about 6 or 7. The day he met his aunt and uncle is also the day he met the little girl they were raising. Her name is Myriam, but everyone calls her Millie.

“She was in the crib with a little dress on. I went over to the crib and put my hands on her hands,” Dobles remembered.

He said he and Millie were always around each other as they grew up in the close-knit family. When he found out that she wasn’t his blood cousin, he began to look at her differently.  One day in the park, during a family picnic, he went off to be by himself, but Millie followed him.  He tried to scare her off by threatening to kiss her if she didn’t return to the others.  He tried to chase her away, she fell, and when he went to help her up, she kissed him instead.

He was struggling at Passaic Technical School with a learning disability and decided to leave and join the U.S. Marine Corps. His father’s service in WWII and his uncle’s service in Korea were also contributing factors. He thought the Marine Corps would be a good place to serve his country.

U.S. Marine Corps Pfc. Ray Dobles in 1971. | Courtesy Ray Dobles

Between boot camp at Paris Island, S.C., and being transferred to Cuba, Millie’s daily letters to Dobles got lost.  He kept writing to her, asking why he hadn’t heard from her, but didn’t get a response.  He saw his fellow Marines around him getting Dear John letters and thought the worst.

His friends at Guantanamo chose him to represent their company in an athletic competition on the base and he ran the fastest to grab a flag and bring it back to headquarters – one of many things he feels like have been miracles in his life. 

Because of that win, his commanding officer chose to reward him with a leave to Puerto Rico, where Millie was staying with family.  He called her and said he was on the island and then took a bus to her small town.  She was thrilled to see him, but he was cold – he had gone there thinking he would be breaking up with her since he hadn’t heard from her.  The issue was quickly and warmly resolved.  Instead of waiting to get married after he got out, the pair planned for nuptials on his next leave.

As a 21-year-old U.S. Marine private, Dobles stood guard in Guantanamo Bay, hoping not to be shot at by what they called “Banana Rats” – pro-Castro Cubans living near the base. One night while standing at Post 16, he saw the flash and heard the bang of a landmine going off nearby.

“A few hours later, I found out some guy made it to our side with a baby in his arms and his other young child. He had blood all over him,” Dobles recalled. He explained where the blood had come from. “It was his wife … I get mad when I hear people talking bad about this country. They don’t know all the stuff that’s going on.”

Dobles said some Cubans were allowed to come onto the base to work if they had a business, but had to leave the camp each night. He befriended one man.

“I asked him, ‘Why don’t you stay here? In 24 hours you’ll be in the United States,’” Dobles said. “He pulled out his wallet and showed me pictures of his wife and kids.”

While Dobles was serving in the Caribbean, many of the boot camp draftees who were with him at Camp Lejeune were sent to Vietnam.

U.S. Marine Corps veteran Ray Dobles walks along The Vietnam Veterans Memorial during the 2023 Polk Veterans Council Flight to Honor. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

On Tuesday, he walked along the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, designed by architect Maya Lin and etched with the names of all 58,281 servicemen and women who died or are still missing in action.

America’s becoming involved in Vietnam is a complicated story. At the time, the official U.S. government line was that we had to help South Vietnam maintain its democracy against North Vietnam’s communist government. Otherwise, all of Asia could fall to the communists of China and the Soviet Union. But some say now, it was simply the U.S. military industrial complex trying to make billions of dollars.

The Wall, as it is known, was dedicated in 1982 and paid for with private funds and donations. The names are listed in the order they died during the controversial war.

This is “the genius of Maya’s design,” said Jan Scruggs, a wounded and decorated Army veteran of the Vietnam War. His quote appears on the Vietnam Memorial website. “The chronological order allows veterans who were in a battle to see their friends forever united on the Wall … As she wisely predicted, this would help bring the veterans back in time—and a cathartic healing would occur for many by facing this loss again.”

Dobles, who has seen the memorial in the past, said he would like to come again with his boot camp graduation program.

“I’m sure I passed some names of guys I was with,” he said.

When told that then-Presidential Candidate Richard Nixon and his eventual Secretary of State Henry Kissinger secretly worked with the North Vietnamese to delay peace talks until after the 1968 elections, telling them they would get a better deal with Nixon, Dobles shook his head. He said he’s been to other countries, including Cuba, Mexico and Peru.

“People everywhere I went were really nice. They invited you to eat, they cooked for you,” He said. “If we didn’t have the government – any government in the world – things would be better.”

He paused beside the bronze statue of three servicemen, appearing as though they were in the jungles of South Vietnam. A few feet away, a bronze plaque on the ground reads: “In memory of the men and women who served in the Vietnam War and later died as a result of their service.  We honor and remember their sacrifice.”

Dobles said he had friends in New Jersey who would go pale and break out in a sweat – which he attributed to the after-effects of being exposed to Agent Orange.  The chemical defoliant was routinely sprayed throughout Vietnam between 1961 and 1971 to strip trees of leaves so enemy soldiers could be better seen.  But those exposed to it have had major health problems, including leukemia, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and various kinds of cancer. Their children have also been born with birth defects.

Dobles left the Marines in 1973.  As he watched a visitor to Washington thank the veterans for their service, he said returning home then was different from today.

“They weren’t nice,” he said. “It’s not like it is today, where they say, ‘Thank you.’ Most people thought we were stupid for going.”

One man stood out among the crowds at the memorials. He was sharply turned out in a blue Air Force uniform, with one star on each shoulder and on his cap.

Brigadier General John Edwards, his daughter Ace, and his father, James Edwards during the 2023 Polk Veterans Council Flight to Honor. | Courtesy Lakeland Police Department

Air Force Brigadier General John Edwards, 51, walked to the memorials from his job nearby as director for Strategic Capabilities on the National Security Council. He was there to meet his father, James Edwards, a Vietnam Veteran.

“It was a tremendous experience to visit the Vietnam Wall with my father, a staff sergeant who served three tours with the Army’s 5th Special Forces Group during the Vietnam War,” Edwards said. “What makes it even more special is that I am the first Air Force general officer of Vietnamese descent.”

Edwards, who spent boyhood summers in Lakeland learning to fish and water ski, was able to share some tremendous news with his father while they stood in front of the black granite that held the names of some of his father’s friends.

“I announced to my father that the President had recently nominated me for promotion to major general in the United States Air Force,” Edwards said, noting that he will add another star to his uniform.

Edwards brought his three children to the memorials – daughters Ace and Ele, and son Jack.

“Our kids also enjoyed seeing their grandfather, and all the other veterans, which was a reminder to them of their sacrifices for our nation,” he said, noting that his cousin, Missy Maumbauer, was his father’s guardian. “Our family was very grateful to the Flight to Honor organization, its volunteers and supporters, for making this mission happen.”

James Edwards hugged his grandchildren goodbye, telling them he knows they are being good.  The general, smiling, looked on.

Dobles and this reporter quietly strolled through the grounds of the Korean War Memorial as we talked about his uncle’s and my Dad’s service during the conflict.  Bronze sculptures of soldiers in ponchos appear to be walking through a grassy field, looking out for the enemy.  A nearby wall has the names of the 36,634 American servicemen who died there. Both Dobles’ uncle and my father returned home physically unscathed.

More than 180 veterans, guardians and volunteers then climbed aboard the buses for the short ride across the Potomac River to Arlington National Cemetery, where they transferred to trams for a quick tour of the graves and a stop at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for the 2 p.m. Changing of the Guard.

The solemn ceremony takes place every half hour during the spring and summer and once an hour in the fall and winter, regardless of the weather. It is a white marble monument dedicated to the services of unknown soldiers from World War I and Korea, “and to the common memories of all soldiers killed in war.”

The tomb was dedicated in 1921, when an unidentified World War I soldier’s body was placed in the tomb. Congress intended “to bring home the body of an unknown American warrior who in himself represents no section, creed, or race in the late war and who typifies, moreover, the soul of America and the supreme sacrifice of her heroic dead.”

The Changing of the Guard, which consists of one of the most elite groups of soldiers, took about 10 minutes to complete.

A brief tour of a different part of the cemetery brought the group back to their four buses and an I-4-like ride back to Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

The flight home included a surprise.  It was time for mail call. School children from all over Polk County had hand written letters to the veterans and Rep. Franklin had issued a signed and sealed Congressional declaration of appreciation.

Welcome Home

Hundreds of friends, family and residents gathered at Lakeland Linder International Airport for the Welcome Home Ceremony of the 2023 Polk Veterans Council Flight to Honor. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

Because of the traffic tie-up between Washington and Baltimore, and delays at the airport, the flight back was running two hours late, touching down at about 9:40 p.m.  As the plane approached the terminal another water arch greeted the veterans and as the plane turned on the tarmac, the veterans could see a crowd of several hundred people gathered with welcome home posters and flags.

Boy Scouts waved large American flags, the Lakeland Concert Band played patriotic songs, cadets from Summerlin Academy presented the colors and a Lakeland Police Honor Guard stood at attention, saluting as everyone exited the plane and walked past them.  Lakeland Police Chief Sam Taylor, along with his top assistant chiefs and lieutenants shook everyone’s hands. Representatives from the Polk County Sheriff’s Department were also there – along with the two deputies who went on the trip as guardians.

Dozens of people said something that Vietnam Vets almost never heard when they came home in the 1960s and 1970s.

“Thank you,” people said, reaching out to shake hands, smile, and sometimes offer a hug.

After a 17-hour day, Dobles was greeted by his wife of 50 years – the one he lists in his phone as “Millie My Love.”

“I enjoyed it,” he said.  “Everything I saw was so nice.”

For Information on Next Year’s Flight To Honor or to contribute to the cost of the trip, visit Flight to Honor’s webpage.

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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