• Chamber Life: Stories from the life and times of Fort Walton Beach Chamber members...




  • Grow Your Gifts Conservatory of Music - A Gift to our Community that Keeps on Growing

    Story By: Kelly Murphy-Redd CEcD - The Official Storyteller of the Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce


  • Marlayna Goosby, Founder and Director of Grow Your Gift Conservatory of Music uses her gift to grow the gifts of others.Born in Louisiana and a military “brat”, Marlayna lived in England, Alaska, and Alabama before moving to Fort Walton Beach in 1995. Her father was Command Chief at Hurlburt Field and her husband is a retired reservist Chief Master Sergeant from Duke Field.

    She attended Fort Walton Beach High School and was appointed to the All-County Honor Band all four years and the Florida All-State Honor Band one year. Marlayna received a music scholarship to the University of Southern Mississippi. As First Clarinet in the university symphony, Marlayna played alongside Doc Severinsen and the original cast of Les Miserable and graduated with a degree in music.

    Marlayna has wonderful memories of her 32 years as a musician. She remembers practicing in her basement, on a stool, on the concrete floor when she was very young, and being taken to group lessons in Anchorage, Alaska when it was ten to twenty degrees below zero. She lights up when talking about playing in the Viking Band at Fort Walton Beach High School under the tutelage of Mr. Randy Folsom and Mr. Ernest Hebson, who still mentor her today. Marlayna insists the years spent with these gentlemen also helped make her and her fellow students into good adults.

    Coming home from college, Marlayna worked as a mail clerk at Troy University, and after five years, she moved up to academic advisor. She was the grants director for the Boys and Girls Club of the Emerald Coast and the Director of Academic Advising and Testing for Northwest Florida State College. Marlayna began playing with the Emerald Coast Community Band in 2017.

    Deciding to begin teaching music lessons in her home, she grew the number of students to 23 and had a waiting list of 11 students.

    The next decision was to expand. She prayed and began working with a realtor to find an appropriate space to rent. Every location they looked at had daytime businesses next door that might not appreciate the music all day. She needed a stand-alone building. The realtor suggested they look at a building on Beal with road frontage. It turned out to be the building Marlayna took music lessons in when she was younger!

    Marlayna and her husband worked day and night to paint the purple walls and grind down the orange concrete floors. The renovation was a labor of love. Starting small, Grow Your Gift Conservatory of Music opened on May 6, 2019, with one employee. In October 2021, they outgrew the space and found a new location in Harbor Village on Beal.

    Since opening its new location, Grow Your Gift has served 300 students per week in the building and through community partnerships such as the Montessori Learning Center, Boys and Girls Club of the Emerald Coast, Choctaw High School, Meigs Middle School, Sinfonia Gulf Coast Youth Orchestra, St. Mary’s Middle School, Shoal River Middle School, Davidson Middle School, Ruckel Middle School, and Liza Jackson Preparatory School. Playground Music donated 20 instruments to help the outreach to the Boys and Girls Club through the Full Circle Foundation.

    Marlayna created the Full Circle Foundation to provide scholarships to students who need access to music education but do not have the ability to pay. With community help, she raised $20,000 in two years.

    Grow Your Gift is built on the vision of being the preeminent music institution in the community and that healing comes through music. Students can find their unique voice, gain confidence and self-esteem, and unleash their creativity. Friendships are built through group lessons because Grow Your Gift emphasizes collaboration, making sure the students get to know each other. Students share in the community through performances, learn new concepts, engage in peer-to-peer mentoring, and are held accountable because the group depends on each other. Grow Your Gift provides a high level of service, organization, and commitment.

    The conservatory teaches 15 different instruments to students from six months old to 74 years old. There are 16 employees who are all musicians and Marlayna’s entire family are musicians.

    An ardent proponent of music as an instrument to change lives, Marlayna shares her own daughter’s experience. Kilaya was struggling academically and had low self-esteem. When she started playing the trombone in the fifth grade, she blossomed, finding an outlet for her creativity and personality.

    Marlayna says adult students feel they are finally doing something for themselves and are proud they can learn something new later in life.

    There are two major performances each year in the spring and at Christmas. There are other smaller performances throughout the community. Recently, the students were invited to perform at The International Festival and Military Appreciation Day. The most dedicated students have the opportunity to participate in these performances.

    Grow Your Gift Conservatory of Music offers private lessons, group lessons, and summer camps. The Summer Music Camps include a Broadway production of The Little Mermaid, Jr. with a cast of kids 

    from the Emerald Coast, an Irish fiddling camp, a drumline camp, a kids’ piano camp, and a piano camp for adults to learn to play during their lunch break. Registration is taking place now.

    Growing the gifts of students of all ages and seeing the positive impact is a wonderful gift in itself for Marlayna Goosby. She isn’t going to rest on her laurels. She has plans to expand even more and continue to grow your gifts.

    For more information call 850-483-0800 or go to https://www.growyourgiftmusic.com.












  • Mike Chesser - A lifetime in our community and still going strong

    Story By: Kelly Murphy-Redd CEcD - The Official Storyteller of the Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce


  • In 1946 Mike Chesser’s father was stationed at Eglin Air Force Base. Though born in Pensacola because there were no facilities in Fort Walton Beach in 1947, Mike has called Okaloosa County home for his entire life.

    This Florida native attended Choctawhatchee High School and attended the University of Florida on a full music scholarship. As the first clarinet, Mike was president of the Choctaw High School and the University of Florida bands. He started playing the saxophone in the Jazz bands and continued playing clarinet in the symphony. He didn’t think he was very talented as compared to the “super talented” musicians he encountered, so he decided to major in law. Mike says he was a better student than a musician.

    The law was something Mike had in mind since early junior high school. Looking back, he gives a lot of credit to his seventh-grade civics teacher. He had an aptitude for reading, writing, and comprehension. He wanted to be of benefit to others and felt there was more opportunity in law than in music.

    While enrolled in the University of Florida ROTC program, Mike enlisted in the Army. When he completed his undergraduate degree, he was given the choice of serving as a lawyer for the Judge Advocate General (JAG) or combat. He chose combat as was to be an artillery forward observer commander. During his training at Fort Sill in Oklahoma, he was informed he was not going to Viet Nam.

    Mike came home and joined a law firm. After a couple of years, he started his own law firm in 1974. In three to four years it grew to seven lawyers and then 12.

    A member of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce from the beginning, Mike chaired the 911 committee. The telephone company didn’t want to do it at first. They were concerned about liability. At the time they were in the throes of switching from a mechanical switching station that worked between cities and prefixes to going digital. After working with the county commission, the telephone company allowed the 911 phone system, and every household was charged a fifty-cent monthly fee.

    Mike started the Bayou Book Store in Niceville with Sarah Paulk. When she left to become a professor, he tried to run it himself. When their youngest child was old enough to go to school, his wife Caroline took over the store and ran it for many years.

    Chairman of the first zoning revision committee for Okaloosa County, Mike also wrote the City of Shalimar zoning ordinance and the original multifamily zoning ordinance for Okaloosa County. Thirty years ago he wrote the documents for Eglin Federal Credit Union adopted by credit unions nationally and still used today.

    Mike was also chairman of the committee to create a bypass around Niceville and College Boulevard. Fort Walton Beach wanted a bypass from Racetrack Road around Fort Walton Beach for the new college campus. The money was split and both were accomplished at the same time. The Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce was instrumental in both projects. Mike says the chamber was also instrumental in the early days of the Midbay Bridge.

    Many of us remember Mike as a relentless proponent of a bypass road for Crestview. He wrote articles in the Daily News about the idea. Nathan Boyles saw the articles and invited Mike to speak to the County Commissioners about Tax Increment Financing (TIF) as a way to finance the proposed bypass. Mike wrote the ordinance that created the TIF.

    When asked what the biggest changes he’s seen over the years are, Mike talks about community and connectivity. He remembers the business community started out as independently owned small businesses. While there are still a lot of them in Fort Walton Beach, there are now many national chains where decisions and profits flow to a corporate entity outside of the county and state. For example, it’s difficult to own space so many people have to rent and today there is no such thing as an independent bank.

    When the Midbay Bridge and the bypasses were constructed, connectivity changed. Like many of us, Mike remembers driving through Fort Walton Beach to go to Destin from Niceville before the bridge was built. Business opportunities grew as we became better connected. It became easier to stay connected.

    With over 50 years in the Florida Bar and several hundred cases later, Mike says lawyers can make a positive contribution to the community if they are in business to help others. A lawsuit should be filed because it can correct something and possibly draw attention to a wrong, not solely to make money.

    Mike continues to serve as the lawyer for the Town of Shalimar, the attorney representative for the Eglin Federal Credit Union, and the Supervisor of Elections. His law firm Chesser & Barr has been in business for over 40 years, and he is part owner of Old South Land Title Company.

    Even after all his accomplishments, Mike says he’s most proud of his four children.




  • Impacting People's Lives is Step One for 2023 Chamber Chair Maureen Bierman

    Story By: Kelly Murphy-Redd CEcD - The Official Storyteller of the Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce


  • Maureen Bierman says her primary focus is making an impact on people’s lives. She hopes to expand that impact as the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce Chair in 2023.

    Originally from New York, Maureen left for New Orleans at 18 years old to attend Newcomb College which was later absorbed into Tulane University. She worked for 15 years as the marketing director for Lakeside Shopping Center, rated one of the top 25 malls in the United States during the 1980s.

    Maureen’s first visit to the Emerald Coast was a trip to Fort Pickens.  Camping on the beach, she had never seen anything more beautiful. She and her husband purchased a condo in Okaloosa County and kept coming over to stay in it instead of making money from it. So they decided to move here.

    Her marketing career in Fort Walton Beach began in 2006 with Lee Automotive. After 12 years, the dealership was sold to Step One Automotive. Maureen has been the marketing director for Step One for six years.

    One way she is involved in making an impact is by facilitating a car donation each year to a family in need. A car can change a life. An example of this life-changing event is a single mom from Savannah who obtained employment but had no transportation. With the donation, she was able to travel to her job and attend college to earn a degree.

    The new focus for Maureen to make an impact is the exciting redevelopment of downtown Fort Walton Beach and the new infrastructure projects connected to that effort. Maureen wants to help create a groundswell of excitement and ongoing support for these projects.

    As the incoming chair, Maureen approached our ever-enthusiastic leader, Ted Corcoran with the idea of implementing the “I love FWB” concept. Ted immediately embraced the idea and created a committee of the same name.

    The idea behind the committee is to be the hub of information for the Brooks Bridge Replacement Project, the Around the Mound Rerouting Hwy. 98 project, the Bridge to Bridge Bike Path, The Landing Park Renovations, and the Santa Rosa Blvd. Construction Project. The committee will also serve as the catalyst to build and maintain momentum and keep the business and local community engaged in downtown development overall.

    The Brooks Bridge Replacement project replaces the existing bridge with a new, modern bridge that will improve safety, reduce congestion, and enhance the overall aesthetic of the area. The new bridge will feature wider lanes, pedestrian walkways, and bike lanes, and will be designed to withstand the impact of hurricanes. Construction is scheduled to begin in the spring of this year.

    The Around the Mound project would help to make downtown Fort Walton Beach a destination. All of the traffic passing through will be re-routed enabling downtown to become a pedestrian-friendly area. The project is being studied by FDOT.

    The Landing Park Renovations will include the construction of a new playground, the installation of new seating and shade structures, and a splash pad and interactive fountain. The park will also feature improved lighting, landscaping, and walkways to enhance the overall experience for visitors. The renovations will help to transform The Landing into a central gathering place for the community, and a destination for tourists visiting Fort Walton Beach.

    The Bridge-to-Bridge Bike Path will create a dedicated bike path along Okaloosa Island. The path will stretch from the Brooks Bridge to the Destin Bridge and will provide a safe and convenient way for people to bike or walk between these two points. The path is designed to accommodate a variety of modes of transportation, including bikes, scooters, and skateboards, and will feature amenities such as benches, water fountains, and shade structures. It will provide a scenic route for people to enjoy the island’s natural beauty and will help to promote a healthy and active lifestyle.

    The Santa Rosa Blvd. construction project will involve the reconstruction of the roadway, the installation of new sidewalks, and the addition of bike lanes. The project is expected to improve access to the island’s popular beaches and enhance the overall experience for both residents and tourists.

    The link for I Love FWB is https://www.getthecoast.com/ilovefwb/.

    Maureen believes these projects represent a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a new foundation and identity for Fort Walton Beach. Everyone involved in supporting these projects will be creating something special for future generations. Residents from Destin to Fort Walton Beach will actively participate in an improved quality of life for themselves, their families, and their neighbors. Creating destinations improves tourism which improves the economy resulting in a win-win for all.



  • FWB Chamber Honors the Horse Soldiers of Afghanistan A Hero and His Extraordinary Family

    Story By: Kelly Murphy-Redd CEcD - The Official Storyteller of the Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce


  • ‚ÄčA feminist focused on a degree and career, who didn’t want marriage or children, meets a steely eyed, barrel-chested freedom fighter while skydiving. This story sounds like fiction, but it’s the true-life adventure of an extraordinary family.

    Dawn met U.S. Army Special Forces, Sergeant Will Summers, on May 4, 1997. They married two months later on July 4th. Dawn freely admits the marriage was rocky during the first couple of years. Will had filed for divorce and moved out, but God intervened. When Will and Dawn gave their lives to Christ, their marriage changed for the better and grew strong. Today, they have 11 children!

    They did not set out to have 11 children or even a large family. Dawn and Will believe it was God’s will and thank God for the freedom that comes from giving your entire life to Him. Life wasn’t always easy or without struggles. Dawn had five miscarriages. However, she says the 25 ½ years of marriage and 22 years of pregnancy, nursing, and raising children have been the great joy of her life.

    This former feminist, raised by her father, not knowing how to be a mother because she didn’t grow up with a mother, says everything she was told about motherhood was a lie. Dawn enthusiastically refutes the notion motherhood takes from you. Instead, she describes the year 2000 and the birth of their first child as a wonderful time of wholeness. She felt so alive and had found her purpose.

    Soon after September 11, 2001, on October 19, 2001, Will left Dawn and their one-year-old and six-week-old children for a mission to Afghanistan. Dawn describes Will’s “agonizing tension”. Will wanted to stay with his family, but knew God made him a warrior. This was his moment. Like a racehorse at the gate, he was raring to go.

    Knowing nothing about the mission, Dawn wasn’t scared because she trusted they were in God’s hands. She remembers sitting in her car, holding the babies, and crying. She missed Will and thought about her children. Thankful to have them in her arms, she didn’t feel alone. These little “Wills” were a comfort and never a burden. Though stressful caring for two babies with Will gone, she found fulfillment and peace. Their church at Fort Campbell provided constant support.

    Will was part of the 5th Special Forces Group’s Operational Detachment Alpha 595, the first Special Forces group inserted into Afghanistan to topple the Taliban, who were providing a safe haven for Osama bin Laden. The mission was called Task Force Dagger, and they were told some of them might not come home. Having to use horses, not tanks or trucks, they had a crash course on horseback riding as soon as they arrived. The horses were not trained, Will’s saddle was a cow’s pelvic bone, and they had to jerry-rig the short stirrups with parachute cords. They worked with Afghan allies they didn’t know if they could trust and trained and fought alongside the Northern Alliance.

    Able to travel day or night, the horses allowed them to get around and behind the enemy, cutting them off from reinforcements or retreat. A critical function of the Special Forces team was to call in air strikes on the Taliban. The horses allowed them to find the enemy’s position in the primitive and rugged terrain. This is how they became known as The Horse Soldiers of Afghanistan.

    One evening, Dawn watched Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on the news. He showed a picture of the Horse Soldiers. Dawn could swear she saw Will in the photo. Several weeks into the mission, she spoke with Will on a satellite phone. She told him what she saw on the news. Will said, “Babe, we’re making the news.” Dawn said, “I knew that was you!”

    Hollywood made a movie titled “12 Strong” about this extraordinary mission. Never imagining the mission would turn into a movie someday, Will feels humbled, saying hundreds of missions deserve to have movies made about them. He doesn’t feel he deserves the accolades and says they were just doing the right thing.

    Dawn explains that God was missing from the movie. Most of the soldiers in-country prayed together and memorized the first psalm. Will shared the gospel in Afghanistan by talking to imams about God’s provision. They didn’t understand, so he showed them scriptures. They had questions and kept coming back to talk with him. Their leaders soon stopped them, but God had opened a door for soldiers to bring God into a godless place.

    Something had died in Will when he retired from the U.S. Army. Dawn says he had a renewed sense of the mighty man he was after seeing the movie. She believes the movie was God’s way of providing a chance for the Horse Soldiers to unify again. It was time for them to rise. Together, they examined a few business ideas and landed on making bourbon. Horse Soldier Bourbon has allowed Dawn to work alongside Will as a co-promoter of the product. They lived in Navarre for a time and then moved to Texas where they run a dairy farm. Will is the Texas regional manager for Horse Soldier Bourbon.

    The Horse Soldier statue stands at the 911 Memorial in New York City. The Port Authority held back some I-beams from the World Trade Center and gave one to the Horse Soldiers. They used part of the I-beam to create a monument at the Horse Soldier Bourbon headquarters in St. Petersburg, Florida. The other part was melted down to make the Horse Soldier Bourbon bottle mold. Each bottle sold has touched ground zero steel.

    The Summer’s 11 children think their dad is awesome and a fantastic father. They love his stories. Dawn says he has amazing storytelling skills. She has homeschooled their children. They are older now and go with Will to events to support him. Dawn loves they see their dad being a successful businessman. The children present themselves as confident. They look you in the eye and are engaging, intelligent, and polite.

    Dawn maintains she couldn’t have done what she’s done without Will’s leadership. She says that leadership doesn’t mean everyone will agree with you. “In our differences, we can come together to fulfill God’s vision for our family,” Dawn explains.

    She describes the FWB Chamber’s Horse Soldier event as a gift. A family of 11 can’t afford vacations or dinners out. Sponsoring the Horse Soldiers and their families gave them a once-in-a-lifetime experience they will never forget. The event was a chance to teach their children about the generosity and kindness of a community. Dawn feels it is a symbol of the community coming together to “pass the torch” from the Doolittle Raiders avenging Pearl Harbor to 911. They are thankful. We are thankful for their service, inspired by their courage, and grateful for their positive spirit.


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  • Paul Singleton: A Singular Source of Generosity and Commitment

    Story By: Kelly Murphy-Redd CEcD - The Official Storyteller of the Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce

  • Tested, stalwart, and dedicated, are words describing Paul Singleton. A fixture as ambassador at the Fort Walton Chamber of Commerce, Paul has attended 1,650 ambassador events including local business ribbon cuttings. How does he know? He consults a little black book where records of such things are kept. Keeping track began years ago when ambassadors turned in hours to quantify service to the community.

    You may know chamber ambassador Paul Singleton, but not his story.

    Paul was raised in North Carolina, one of six children. His father was Chief of Police, worked in a defense plant, and served in the North Carolina National Guard during WWI. At seven years old, Paul’s father caught him lying and put him in jail. This lesson had a lasting effect on Paul.

    His father later became an invalid and a sharecropper. Paul worked shifts at a local paper mill while a senior in high school. With no available support from family, he enrolled in East Carolina University. There he met Anne George, from Richmond, Virginia. They married in 1955.

    He enlisted in the Air Force as a junior in college. On graduation night, after two years of Aviation Cadet School, Paul was asked if he was married. He couldn’t lie and said yes. Cadets were not supposed to be married. Paul didn’t graduate. 

    Re-enrolling in East Carolina University (ECU) in Air Force ROTC, Paul graduated in two years. In the second year, he had a teaching fellowship. During the break between junior and senior years, he went to ROTC Summer Camp, becoming the Cadet Commander. Paul returned to ROTC at ECU and served a term as Cadet Commander. After graduating as a Distinguished Military Graduate, he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1958.

    Paul served in the Air Force as a Special Ops officer. He was a staff navigator for the 6315th Combat Operations Group in Okinawa from 1962 to 1966. He taught ROTC at the University of Southwestern Louisiana from 1966 to 1969 and attended gunship aircrew training in Ohio. During his time in Vietnam, Paul remembers being replaced on a 14-man gunship just before takeoff. The plane was shot down and only one man survived.

    Paul was chief of aircrew training at Hurlburt Field from 1970 to 1976, and attended and taught at the United States Air Force War College in Montgomery, Alabama from 1976 to 1981. He was again stationed at Hurlburt as part of the 16th Special Operations Squadron from 1981 to 1984 and served in Grenada from 1982 to 1984.

    A Lt. Colonel with 32 years of service, Paul retired from the Air Force but not from active life.

    He served Okaloosa County as a member of the executive committee for the United Way from 1984 to 1985, the Democratic Committee from 1987 to 1989, and President of the Guidance Clinic (now Bridgeway) in 1983. Paul was named mental health volunteer of the year.

    He also served as chairman of the American Heart Association from 1986 to 1991, member-at-large of the Concert Association from 1987 to 1991, Deacon of the 1st Presbyterian Church from 1988 to 1990, and member of the governing board for the West Florida Community Care Center in Milton, Florida from 1988 to 1990. He was on the YMCA board for 20 years.

    If that wasn’t enough, he was Lt. Governor of Kiwanis from 1992 to 1993, a trustee for the Florida District Foundation in 1994, and named Kiwanian of the Year in 1977 and 1993. Paul has been an ambassador for the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce since 1984, the Fort Walton Beach Coin Club secretary/treasurer from 1984 to 1989, and treasurer of the ROAIC Investment Club from 1985 to 1988.

    In 1990, Paul went to see Buddy Bracken at the Okaloosa Clerk of Courts. He told Buddy, “I need a job so I can get weekends off.” He was hired as an administrative assistant and public relations representative. He officiated swearing-in ceremonies and marriage ceremonies, wrote the newsletter, and created the first telephone directory for county workers to unify the county.

    Paul has many stories, but here are a few. 

    Public services were scarce in Okaloosa County in the early days. In 1971, Kiwanis created a hearing test program. People would call the telephone company and if they couldn’t hear certain words or numbers recited to them over the phone, they were told to see a doctor.

    Once a twelve-year-old boy was caught stealing a preacher’s car in Pensacola. Paul offered to have the boy stay at his house. When the boy left, Paul discovered his son’s coin collection was gone.

    As a deacon of the 1st Presbyterian Church, Paul served as property chairman. He says he was a unifier there as well because whenever he did anything to the kitchen, all the women got mad.

    Paul loves serving the community because he receives more than he gives. Paul and Anne were married for 63 years before she passed away in 2018. He has recently been inducted into the Distinguished Military Service Society at East Carolina University.


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  • Former Vietnam POW Howard Hill Tells His Story

    Story By: Kelly Murphy-Redd CEcD - The Official Storyteller of the Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce


    Descending by parachute, Howard Hill saw someone with a rifle running down the dirt road in his direction. When he landed, two men in militia outfits and pith helmets stood 10 feet away, looking down the sights of their rifles with bayonets. Forty to fifty more came out from the brush hollering. The Vietnamese government was offering villagers 110 lbs. of rice for every prisoner. It was December 1967.

    Trying to take off Howard’s gear, the militia couldn’t figure out the buckles, so they cut the straps with knives. Accidentally hitting the life preserver, the CO2 cartridges exploded. The militia stabbed wildly at the preservers to deflate them. Howard hoped they wouldn’t stab him. They took his flight suit and boots. They returned them minus the boot laces.

    His front-seater Jim landed in the woods, was captured, and brought in wearing only underwear and a t-shirt. Elbows bound behind his back, walking along the road to the village, they passed a group of women and children at a gate staring at them. Howard felt embarrassed for Jim and signaled to a guard asking about Jim’s flight suit. The guard said, “Him shoot, you no shoot.”

    Led to an open area, told to sit and bow their heads, people gathered around them. An old man hit Howard in the head. The crowd loved it. At night, they were taken to a room, given a cup of water, a dish of brownish coarse sugar with dried pumpkin powder, and a piece of baguette. Then, tied up even tighter and blindfolded for hours, Howard massaged his numb left arm with his right hand. He couldn’t lose circulation and possibly get gangrene.

    The guards stood him up and walked him to the door, where he felt cool air and heard the crowd noise. Still blindfolded, Howard was punched and kicked as they led him outside. A woman screamed and slapped his face. The crowd roared approval.

    Guards threw Howard on top of Jim in a jeep and drove to a creek. When he asked if anyone spoke English, the guards whacked him. They crossed the creek flanked on both sides by villagers. Kids threw dirt clods at them and kept hitting the guard. Howard wondered if he could overpower his guard, but had no gear and no place to go.

    A helicopter took them to the Hanoi Hilton. It was hard to believe only four months and one day earlier, Howard married his wife Libby.

    Arriving at the Hanoi Hilton, he was blindfolded again and taken to a room where he stood for a long time. Then the blindfold was taken off, he was untied, and interrogated through the night. Military information is perishable. They need to get it quickly. When he refused to answer questions, he was bound into a tight ball with ropes. Morning came, the interrogation stopped, and he laid down in the corner to sleep. They returned in the afternoon to begin again.

    In February 1968, three prisoners were released early. They violated the code of conduct by accepting special favors from the enemy and signing propaganda statements. In August, Howard’s front-seater Jim and two others violated the code and were released. It was meant to demoralize the rest of them.

    Howard and his roommate were shown copies of the signed statements and given quill pens. Told they could go home too; they refused. Twelve prisoners were given early release. Only one was honorable because the POW senior ranking officer ordered him to go and make public what was going on. Howard believed this helped their treatment. Those who left in February memorized names on 104 flight suits from doing laundry and provided the names to the U.S. Upon release, Jim confirmed Howard was captured.

    Howard began prison life in a 5 x 7-foot room and subsequently, moved to an 8 x 8 and a 14 x 14. POWs slept on raised concrete slabs or hardwood slats. A bare light bulb was always on so the guards could see them.

    POWs were given a rice mat, two blankets, a mosquito net, (Guards took that away if they were mad at you.), two pairs of underwear, two t-shirts, two pairs of trousers, two jackets, one pair of socks, and a pair of sandals made out of tires with inner tube straps. They also received a hand towel, a liter jug of boiled water twice a day, a bar of lye soap, a tube of toothpaste to last three months, an enamel dish, three cigarettes a day, and a fan on a bamboo stick.

    A five-gallon galvanized bucket was the toilet and coarse paper was used for toilet paper. They figured out that using their sandals as toilet seats could prevent the inevitable ringworm from the rim of the bucket and the imprint of the rim on their butts. Toothpaste also killed ringworm. They emptied the buckets into the open sewage ditch in the shower area. A shower was usually allowed every morning in an open-air, bamboo-walled area using a small rubber bucket with a rope attached to scoop water out of a cistern or well to pour on themselves. No showers on Sundays when they weren’t allowed out or if the guards were mad at them.

    At 6 a.m. the gong rang for the POWs to get up, fold their blankets, nets, and mat, and set them at the head of the bed. The guards played the same Radio Hanoi program from the night before about the glorious victories of the Vietnamese. After lunch, the guards took a siesta. Not allowed to communicate with each other, the POWS secretly communicated during siesta, but the guards got smart and tried to listen. Supper was in the evening. At 8 p.m. taps played, and it was time to go to bed. The POWs developed a tap code to communicate when in their rooms. Keeping watch on the guards from their windows, they would communicate verbally as much as possible.

    After the Son Tay Raid in November 1970, the POWs moved into Hoa Lo, the central prison in Hanoi. With 50 in a room once and no room for everyone to lay out their mats, some of the men taught classes. There were language classes, math, and even ballroom dancing.

    Meals consisted of soup made with pumpkin, kohlrabi, or turnips, a bowl of rice, or baguette. There might be meat or flat fermented fish. One room washed dishes for a building housing 20. They figured out they could write on the bottom of the bowls. They also used the end of toothpaste tubes to write on the coarse paper.

    Work detail included dredging sludge from the sewage ditch for the garden, washing dishes, making coal balls out of mud and soft coal used in the kitchen, or sweeping. Dredging sludge or making coal balls entitled you to a second shower. Guards asked three rooms of POWs to dig bomb shelters for the guards. Two said they would. The third refused. The third room POWs were beaten and had to dig. The POWs saying they would dig were left alone. The guards like to keep them off balance.

    Interrogations were called “quizzes” by POWs. Sitting on a small stool, if the guards didn’t like what they said, they were hit and knocked off the stool. They had to “stand” on their knees with their arms up in the air for hours. During surprise room inspections, guards would frisk them, throw around their belongings, and plant contraband. Senior officers got it the worst. Treatment depended on which camp you were in.

    Howard moved camps a few times. In 1969, he was in an old French movie studio where the Vietnamese held Christmas Eve Service for propaganda. East Germans filmed it. U.S. Intelligence obtained a copy and blew up every other frame into 5x7 still photos. At a gathering in 1970, the League of American Families spread the photos out on tables. Howard’s wife, Libby, walked by and saw a picture of Howard.

    One of the nicknames given to the interrogators was Judas-Maker. Another, Stag, spoke fluent English. Stag would stand outside under the POWs’ windows and try to get them to talk by sounding like an American to get them in trouble.

    In May 1972, four-and-a-half years into captivity, Howard and others were discussing how long the war would continue. They agreed it would go on for another 10-15 years. Howard said they knew they would go home, they just didn’t know when. They had faith in their country. That faith was rewarded when in March 1973 they were released.

    Howard says it was worse for the families not knowing whether their loved ones were alive or dead. Divorces and suicides were common among those returning. Howard says he was just so glad to be home.

    He has no hatred or animosity for the Vietnamese. He says they were doing their jobs, and he was doing his. “There is no sense in feeling sorry for yourself. Someone always has it worse. And good can be found in everything,” says Howard.

    He still feels the same sentiment used to sign off each time he and his fellow prisoners communicated by tap code, GBU GBA, for “God Bless You, God Bless America.”

    Howard Hill moved to Okaloosa County in 1991. He served as an Okaloosa County school board member from November 1996 to November 2010. He has served as President of the PAL Soccer League since January 24, 1994. The Niceville soccer field is named in his honor.




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  • Love at First Sight: A Match Made in Fort Walton Beach

    Story By: Kelly Murphy-Redd CEcD - The Official Storyteller of the Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce

  • This story begins, as many great stories do, at the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce. Intrepid leader and master of ceremonies Ted Corcoran was out of town in May of this year and made plans to transform the First Friday Coffee into a non-profit “trade show” in his absence.

    Director of Special Events, Rachelle Graves, walking by a particular table at the trade show, was drawn like a magnet to a poster with a photo of man’s best friend.

    But let’s pause here and take a step back in history.

    Rachelle Graves has lived in Fort Walton Beach most of her life. Her grandparents moved here in the 1930s. Her grandfather managed the army campground in Destin. Discharged from active duty, he remained involved, performing his duties at the recreation camp.

    Both of Rachelle’s parents were born in Fort Walton Beach. In 1958, her father, Gary Garrett, was adopted by a military family at Eglin AFB. He joined the Air Force out of high school and spent almost his entire career at Hurlburt Field.

    Gary has always had a dog. In November of 2021, his dog had a stroke and died. Rachelle kept telling him, “You need a dog. What kind of dog do you want?”

    Enter “Dog Daze,” the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce annual event. Dog Daze is a fun-filled day for all dogs (over 6 months old), and people who love dogs. The event is sponsored by Friendship Veterinary Hospital. Dozens of rescue organizations, dog trainers, veterinarian clinics, dog groomers, and more attend this huge, fun, one-day, dog event. Rachelle, the organizer of the event, met representatives from Healing Paws for Warriors there. The organization soon became a chamber member.

    Local, veteran-founded, and veteran-led, this 501(c) (3) organization is dedicated to providing combat veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and Military Sexual Trauma (MST) trained ADA-certified service dogs at no cost to the veteran with continued support. This program is designed to reduce veteran suicide, and increase veteran and family health and wellness. 

    The Healing Paws for Warriors staff includes a combat medical war veteran, a practicing PTSD therapist, a professional service dog trainer, a veterinarian, and many other supportive volunteers.  

    The dogs are predominantly from local rescue shelters.  They are not pets, but service dogs with the complete protection and rights granted by the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The service dog trainer teaches the dogs and the lead veteran/K9 team trains the incoming veterans to be a team with their new battle buddy.  Their website also states their goals:

    • Bringing awareness to veteran suicide; reducing the numbers, one service dog at a time
    • Give hope and healing to Veterans and rescue dogs through empowering military heroes to return to civilian life with dignity and independence
    • Express gratitude to those who have served, or are serving our great country
    • Reduce the number of canines in shelters; ending pet homelessness


    Fast forward to that First Friday Coffee in May. Rachelle saw the poster of “Chopper”, a retiring service dog who needed a new home, and went over to talk with Mike Arena, the CEO of Healing Paws for Warriors. She told Mike her dad Gary needed a pet dog, not a service dog. Chopper had some Doberman in him and Gary had had Dobermans before. Rachelle took pictures of Chopper and texted them to her dad.

    Texts and phone calls ensued between Mike and Gary and a visit was scheduled for Gary to meet Chopper. Chopper’s foster parent says Chopper usually barks when meeting people but he didn’t when he met Gary.

    The next step was to bring Chopper to Gary’s home. Upon arrival, the Healing Paws for Warriors representative stated with certainty to Gary, “This is your dog.” Chopper arrived that day and never left. One month later, Gary and Chopper were best friends. It probably didn’t hurt that on that first night, Gary went to Walmart and bought two Ribeye steaks to grill for himself and Chopper.



    Rachelle says this love story would not have been possible without the connection between the chamber and Healing Paws for Warriors. She ends the story this way, “Happy Dad, Happy Dog.”











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