Kevin Custer clutched the microphone in one hand, thanking those that came before him – his father, his grandfathers, his uncles and his cousins – for bringing him to this moment.
And what a moment it was.
Surrounded by about 120 loved ones, Custer was recently honored with a framed Distinguished Flying Cross medal from the DFC Society and a Congressional Certificate by Congressman Jeff Denham’s office.
The former Manteca High graduate is a staff sergeant with the U.S. Army and has served all over the world. He returned home on Tuesday, Nov. 25, for a special presentation at the American Legion’s hall on East Yosemite Avenue.
There, Custer and his family were greeted by many familiar faces, many of whom helped piece together an evening of food, fun and ceremony.
Custer was presented the Distinguished Flying Cross medal – a four-bladed propeller sitting atop a cross – by Tony Ventura, a DFC recipient for an act of valor during Vietnam. The Distinguished Flying Cross is awarded to members of the United States Armed Forces who display acts of “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.”
Michael Anderson, a Gold Star father and Marine veteran, served as Denham’s liaison, awarding Custer the Congressional Certificate.
Custer thanked the men in his life for their direction and example.
His grandfather, Francis Dowling, an Army veteran, took Kevin for his first flight in his private Cessna. His father, Cody Custer, imparted life skills on his only son and the two spent countless hours in the outdoors. Custer was named after a cousin, Kevin Dowling, who flew Chinooks for the Navy.
Flying wasn’t an acquired skill; it was part of his DNA.
Custer, whose interest in the military was honed by Manteca High JROTC instructor Bo Svoboda, enlisted in the Army shortly after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. He wanted to enlist ahead of his 18th birthday, but couldn’t persuade his mother, Erin Custer, to sign the release.
“I serve so you don’t have to,” Custer told those in attendance on Nov. 25. “I accept this award for the 29 men who deserve to be standing here but are not with us any longer.”
Among the evening’s guests:
• San Joaquin Country Office of Education Board of Trustee and family friend Vern Gebhardt presided over the festivities as emcee.
• Cousin Sarah Houck, also a Manteca High graduate, sang “America the Beautiful.”
• American Legion Post Commander Jim Winston led the gathering in the Pledge of Allegiance, while bagpiper George Harcrow played the Army theme song.
• Crossroads Grace Community Church pastor Sean Mahoney blessed the meal, while volunteers from Sequoia Heights Baptist Church helped work the event.
• Longtime family friend Marlene Champlin coordinated all of the logistics, while retired Manteca Police officer Danny Erb was recognized for his mentorship of Custer.
• And former Manteca High principal Telka Walser and videographer Wes Johnson provided glimpses into Custer’s youth. Walser recalled Custer’s time in high school, while Johnson put together a highlight video of Custer’s life.