Oldsmar officials, vets board members ready to move on from Memorial Day dispute

A dispute between the members of Oldsmar’s Veterans Advisory Board and local Gold Star Families of fallen soldiers threatened to cast a shadow over the city’s 2017 Memorial Day ceremony.

When a dispute between members of Oldsmar’s Veterans Advisory Board and local Gold Star Families of fallen soldiers came to light recently, the rift threatened to overshadow the city’s 2017 Memorial Day ceremony.

But despite the feud, which featured impassioned public pleas by Toni Gross to allow Gold Star family members to speak at the ceremony, as well as reports of hostile phone calls and nasty social media posts, the event was widely regarded as one of the best of its kind in the city’s history, highlighted by a record attendance and several moving moments and speeches.

During the City Council meeting on Tuesday night, Mayor Doug Bevis took a minute to address the controversy, praising the VAB for organizing the event and saying he hoped all parties involved could move forward.

Oldsmar Mayor Doug Bevis hugs Toni Gross during the city’s 2017 Memorial Day ceremony on Monday, May 29.

“Turning both our (veterans) ceremonies over to the Veterans Advisory Board is one of the best decisions we made,” Bevis said after board member Mark Brill’s wife, Eileen, thanked the council in the Audience to be Heard portion of the meeting. “It’s unfortunate the way it unfolded. The city really took a hit, and so did the advisory council.”

“But I think every year it continues to get better, and I think this one…really went a long way towards honoring the men who sacrificed their lives,” he continued.”

“That’s really what it’s about, and hopefully moving forward, we can continue to do that.”

VAB members also discussed the subject during their regularly scheduled meeting on Monday afternoon.

“No one was ever banned from speaking,” chair John Ruckart said. “(Toni) was never forbid from speaking or anything like that. A request was made of the board for Toni Gross to speak at (the ceremony), the board discussed it and said it would make more sense to honor the Gold Star mothers and families by the mayor of the city recognizing them.”

“A plan was put into place, which seemed very appropriate by everyone on the board, and that is what happened. Simply that. And then unfortunately, it spiraled out of control.”

Oldsmar’s Veterans Advisory Board members (l-r) John Ruckart, Dave Tilki, Mark Brill and Frank Chicollo at the 2017 Memorial Day ceremony.

Ruckart, who noted he has had a longstanding friendship with the Gross family, said the decision was made to allow the mayor to speak for everyone in order for the event to be more all-inclusive.

“This is not about a single person, a single family. This is about all the fallen soldiers now and in the past,” he said. “And it’s unfair to say that we don’t, in this city, do enough for the Gross family and Gold Star mothers and families. We absolutely do.”

“The Memorial Day ceremony got plenty of good comments back from many people on how well it was done. It wasn’t a failure because the Grosses did not speak.”

Toni Gross, who couldn’t attend the meetings this week

Toni Gross at a table dedicated to her son, US Army Cpl. Frank R. Gross, during Oldsmar’s Memorial Day ceremony on May, 29, 2017.

because she and her husband were in Washington, D.C. with a group of Gold Star families visiting the White House and Arlington National Cemetery, said she also wants to move forward.

But she stressed that she still is not satisfied with how the entire situation was handled.

“Had they said in the beginning, ‘Mrs. Gross, you’re not going to be speaking, we’re going to handle this in a different way,’ it would’ve gone a long way towards resolving this conflict a long time ago,” she told Oldsmar Connect by phone on Wednesday, adding she originally approached the VAB with her request in July of 2016 and up until recently, the board never gave her a reason why she couldn’t be part of the ceremony.

“Because they didn’t, I took it to the City Council because I felt it was the right thing to do.”

Gross went on to praise Bevis and keynote speaker Brian Anderson as well as the advisory board members for the event.

“I’m grateful Mayor Doug incorporated the Gold Star families in the wreath laying ceremony, and for the prayer that Brian said,” she said. “As for the board, they’re all outstanding individuals. I’ve always respected and admired them, and I still do.”

She also said she is not going to stop petitioning the VAB and the city to allow Gold Star Families to speak on Memorial Day.

Local Gold Star Families of fallen soldiers have been involved in a dispute with Oldsmar’s Veterans Advisory Board over not being allowed to speak at the city’s 2017 Memorial Day ceremony.

“They’re completely missing the meaning and significance of Memorial Day, and as far as I’m concerned, nothing has really changed about that. But that’s okay.”

“I will continue to do what I’ve been doing—going before the board with a bribe of expensive cupcakes, and asking if Gold Star Families will be allowed to speak on Memorial Day,” she added. “Because I’m doing it in memory of fallen soldiers and for my son, Frank Gross.”

While the dispute might be behind everyone for now, there’s little doubt it will arise again.

When alternate board member John Paskert asked during the meeting if it was going to be an issue every year, member Frank Cicollo had a quick response.

“It could be,” Cicollo replied. “But we’ll deal with it when it comes up.”

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