Dispute between veterans board, families of fallen overshadows Memorial Day in Oldsmar

Oldsmar’s Veterans Memorial Park.

A dispute between Oldsmar’s Veterans Advisory Board and families of local fallen soldiers over participation in the city’s annual Memorial Day ceremony has led to hurt feelings on all sides, leaving a cloud of resentment hanging over next Monday’s service.

The issue came to light when Toni Gross, mother of Army Cpl. Frank R. Gross, who was killed in action in Afghanistan on July 16, 2011, appeared, along with fellow Gold Star mother Michele Carey, before the City Council on Tuesday, May 16 to ask why the board would not allow Gold and Blue Star family members to speak at the Memorial Day ceremony, which is specifically designated as a day to honor those who died while in service of their country.

Gold Star mothers Toni Gross (l) and Michele Carey speak at the Oldsmar City Council meeting on Tuesday, May 16, 2017.

“I ask the Veterans Advisory Board why Craig and I, or any family of the fallen, why are we not permitted to speak at this and all Memorial Day ceremonies held at Oldsmar’s Veterans Memorial Park?” Gross said, referring to her husband, who was not present.

“We’re not asking to be the keynote speakers. We simply ask to briefly speak on behalf of the families of the fallen. Is this unreasonable? Why are families of the fallen not welcome by Oldsmar’s Veterans Advisory Board?”

VAB vice-chair Mark Brill, who lives next door to the Gross’, took the podium to defend the board’s decision, stating he did not speak for the entire board.

“We didn’t mean to slight anybody,” Brill said, adding, “We try to do the best we can. It’s a volunteer position.”

Oldsmar Veterans Advisory Board vice-chair Mark Brill.

“These are decisions we made for the reasons we made, it’s not here to be discussed here.”

Brill continued, “It’s a little disheartening and saddening that if somebody doesn’t like our decision this is the second year in a row now they come before the board and say, ‘what about this, what about this?’ (and) are we gonna change it.”

“If you’re going to do that, what’s the point of having a Veterans Advisory Board then?”

Mayor Doug Bevis concurred, and his fellow council members agreed that while did not want the board to disband, they did want to know why the Gold Star families were being excluded from speaking at the event.

Oldsmar City Council member Eric Seidel.

“You guys do a terrific job,” Council member Eric Seidel said. “But it does make somebody ask, ‘why?'”

“I think that might be a fair question for the board to ask that question. It doesn’t call the board itself into question, but rather, what was the reason for that? Because I’m sure there is a reason.”

Council member Gabby McGee seconded Seidel’s query, and Brill responded with a curt reply.

“Our next meeting is June 5th,” he said. “I invite all of you to come to our meeting.”

In the week since that council meeting, the situation took a turn for the worse.

Don Carey (l) and Craig Gross embrace after the Tribute to the Troops event on March 21.

During a work session to discuss the city manager succession plan Tuesday morning, the Gross’, along with Michele and Don Carey, again asked the council why they weren’t being allowed to speak at the Memorial Day ceremony.

According to those in attendance, things got personal after Craig Gross denounced the way the city has handled the situation and called into question officials treatment of veterans and families of the fallen, an accusation that apparently didn’t sit well with Beverland or Mayor Bevis.

“I said while we’re being honest, I didn’t appreciate how this was being handled on social media,” Bevis said by phone on Wednesday, referring to posts on Craig Gross’ Facebook page that he considered to be disparaging to the city. “It came across and very mean-spirited, and she (Toni Gross) agreed.”

The mural at Veterans Memorial Park in Oldsmar depicts images of, and by, Army Cpl. Frank R. Gross.

“The City of Oldsmar prides itself in making sure we recognize both veterans and those who gave their lives for our country in a lot of ways,” Bevis added, noting the many special events and ceremonies the city hosts, as well as the memorials, murals and parks, dedicated to veterans and fallen soldiers.

“That’s what makes this a little hurtful.”

Beverland, who during his time as mayor was instrumental in getting the Memorial Park built and forming the veterans board, didn’t hold back his feelings on the issue when reached by phone on Wednesday.

“The City of Oldsmar has done more for Frankie Gross than any city has done for any fallen soldier in the entire state of Florida, and that’s a fact,” he said.

“Craig has suffered a tragedy and I know that. But don’t take it out on the City. The City of Oldsmar has not forgotten about Frankie and never will.”

Beverland, a longtime proponent of veterans causes, said he spoke to VAB members, and they assured him that Gold Star family members from around the state will be allowed to speak at every Memorial Day ceremony moving forward.

Jerry Beverland is flanked by Frank and Toni Gross at Oldsmar’s Gold Star Mothers and Family ceremony in September 2015.

“I told the board members that during our Memorial Day services, there should be five minutes for a Gold Star family member—not the Gross’—to make a speech, and they said, ‘you’re right,’” he said.

He was quick to credit Toni Gross for helping the city understand the importance of differentiating between veterans ceremonies and memorial ceremonies.

“Toni has represented Gold Star moms to a point where it’s now important we include them in our Memorial Day Service,” he said. “It’s all because of Toni. She’s educated us, and we understand the ceremony has evolved and grown over the years to where this needs to be a part of the service.”

He also expressed support for the board he helped create.

“I’m the one who started the (board) because we were jot qualified to handle the veterans ceremonies,” Beverland said.

“The people on that board have won Purple Hearts and service medals and left body parts on the battlefield, and if you lost part of your body for our country, you have every right to be on that board.”

Oldsmar Mayor Doug Bevis.

Mayor Bevis agreed.

“The board is all veterans. Who better to guide these things?” he said.

“They’re trying to the best job they can to put together good, meaningful and purposeful ceremonies, and I think they’ve done a good job. Could they be better? Sure. But we have tasked them with this, and if we start dictating to them what we want, then why are they doing it?”

Bevis added, “Their thought was not to exclude the Gold Star families, but to have them recognized by the city, and I can’t disagree with that.”

“But I think the one good thing that’s come out of this is the work Toni has done has helped us differentiate between Memorial Day and Veterans Day, and hopefully we can continue to improve our ceremonies and recognize those who need to be recognized in the proper fashion.”

A statue in honor of the fallen was installed at Oldsmar’s Veterans Memorial Park with help from John Ruckart’s son.

When reached by phone, VAB member John Ruckart said he didn’t know enough about the situation to comment on the matter.

“I missed the meeting so I don’t know what the specific discussion was,” Ruckart told Oldsmar Connect, adding, “What I understand is the mayor was going to speak for everyone so the ceremony didn’t run too long.”

Despite repeating that he wasn’t aware of what was going on, Ruckart, who is listed as chair but denied being chairman of the board, did express his displeasure that the situation had come to this point.

“I’m disappointed because I’m friends with Toni. My son helped put up the statue in honor of Craig and Toni’s son in the park.”

“But it’s a memorial service, and we can’t have everybody speak,” he said. “It’s about everybody who lost their lives in service. It encompasses everyone, not just one family.”

For her part, Toni Gross said she remains hurt by the whole situation.

“It’s hard,” she said. “Just a few years ago, we were embraced and respected by the board, but what’s transpired between now and then, I have no idea.”

“These are my neighbors,” she added. “I can’t understand why they are doing this to us. We’re all in this together. I don’t have any answers because they are all good people.”

A photo depicting Frank and Toni Gross (center left and right) along with members of Oldsmar’s Veterans Advisory Board from a recent Memorial Day ceremony in the city. (Credit: Toni Gross)

Gross said that while she has every intention of attending Monday’s service, her husband will not be there, as he is going to New York to tape a segment for Fox and Friends.

However, she said she will not be able to make it to next month’s board meeting, though she has good reason.

“Craig and I have been invited to a special dinner at the White House honoring Gold Star families,” she explained. “So that’s where we’ll be.”

“But our loved ones who have given their lives and paid the ultimate sacrifice are the reason we celebrate Memorial Day, and you can’t ignore the families of the fallen. And I just want to know why.”

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