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Waterford understands the debt we all owe those who serve

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Earl "The Pearl" Watson, left, a survivor of the Battle of the Bulge, thanks Manteca Ford owner Phil Waterford onstage after Waterford presented the World War II veteran with a 2010 Ford Fusion.

HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin/

POSTED May 31, 2010 3:16 a.m.
Bob Gutierrez almost didn’t come back from Vietnam.

But there was a time in his life when he probably wished he hadn’t.

Prior to being drafted to serve in the war where America lost 54,000 soldiers, Gutierrez had a promising future as a singer. It was good enough to have offers of a recording contract and to secure an appearance on the Michael Douglas Show.

On a fateful day in Vietnam, an incoming rocket could have killed him. Instead, the sharp edge of the tail assembly slit his throat from ear-to-ear as it whizzed by costing him his vocal chords and his esophagus.

What followed was three years in a hospital in Japan and a painful homecoming to Manteca. He recalled making some bad choices in the dark moments after returning to civilian life.

Earl Watson fought valiantly as a member of the highly acclaimed all Black brigade at the Battle of the Bulge. He came home to America where the best job he could find was as a men’s room attendant at the famous Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel frequented by movie stars, singers, and the famous. It was there in the men’s room he ran into a young actor named Ronald Reagan. During a chat, Watson told of his World War II service. That prompted Reagan to see the manager and insist he find a better job for the war hero. The manager followed through and made Watson the doorman. That is how a poor boy who grew up with four sisters and two brothers in a two bedroom home in Chicago ended up rubbing elbows with the famous including a stint serving as Elvis Presley’s bodyguard.

Last year, Phil Waterford accepted an offer from Pastor Mike Dillman to serve as master of ceremonies for the Memorial Day Weekend. He accepted although he later admitted he was less than enthusiastic about the task.

It wasn’t until he sat in the dining room at Prestige Senior Living during the 2009 Gold Start families’ dinner and listened to their stories and that of Manteca hometown hero Sammy Davis who was bestowed the Medal of Honor for going beyond the call of duty in Vietnam that his attitude changed.

For the first time in his life he was in awe of what the men and women do who wear this nation’s uniform. He couldn’t sleep that night.

By the time dawn came, Waterford knew what he had to do. He had heard Gutierrez tell a friend that he doubted his car would make it back to Texas given how it had almost broken down on the way out to Manteca.

He decided to present Gutierrez with the first new 2010 Ford Fusion that had arrived at his North Main Street dealership.

That was last year.

At Sunday’s Memorial Day Weekend ceremonies at Woodward Park, Waterford asked Gutierrez if he could buy the car back. Gutierrez – without hesitation - agreed. Waterford turned around and presented Gutierrez with a fully loaded 2010 Mercury Milan. Then he gave Watson the 2010 Fusion.

Waterford last year said after meeting Watson, Gutierrez and all the others who had served America in battle, he realized how good he really had it and how he owed his freedom and the ability to be in business for himself to the blood of men and women in uniform.

It isn’t, after all, the politician who gave us the right to vote. It was soldiers like Gutierrez.

It wasn’t a pastor that gave us the right to worship as we chose. It was men like Watson.

It wasn’t a reporter that secured a free press.  It was a Medal of Honor recipient like Davis

And it wasn’t a student activist that gave us the right to protest. It was a soldier.

Waterford considers himself blessed – and humbled – to have met some of the men and women who served  and who saw their comrades maimed and killed to secure not only the freedoms that he enjoys along with his family but those of everyone else in this land called America.

You don’t have to match Waterford’s generous gesture. All you have to do is follow the words of Air Force Major David Gore serving out of Beale Air Force Base. The next time you see a soldier in uniform stop them and offer your hand and heartfelt thanks.

For without soldiers willing to go in harm’s way and – if needed – die, there would be no America.

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