World War II Army Veteran receives surprise honor from President Obama
Alphonso “Al” Giles, 90-year-old WWII Veteran.
By Yvette M. Giles
Attending President Obama’s campaign rally resulted in an unanticipated surprise for life-long Fort Lauderdale resident, Alphonso “Al” Giles. The 90-year-old Army veteran served as a water purification specialist in the jungles of New Guinea during World War II. “I never thought I would live to see a member of my race become President of the United States,” said Giles. For this reason, Giles was eager to attend the Obama campaign rally on Nov. 4, 2012 at MacArthur High School in Hollywood. He attended the rally with hopes of seeing the country’s first Black President in person. Little did he know he would have an once-in-a-life-time experience he would never forget.
Giles’ daughter, Yvette, asked Senator Christopher “Chris” Smith about the possibility of her father shaking the President’s hand during the campaign rally. Although Smith and his family were unable to attend the rally, Smith provided the Giles family with priority tickets and gave the younger Giles the contact information for staff coordinating the massive rally. Smith instructed campaign staff members to make contact with her. Giles later learned Smith greeted President Obama on the tarmac at the airport and told the President, “We have a 90-year-old World War II veteran waiting to greet you.”
An estimated 25,000 Obama supporters packed the high school’s football field on a sweltering day in anticipation of the President’s arrival. Enthusiastic chants of “four more years!” erupted from the crowd.
The elder Giles, along with his wife and daughter, could not have navigated the sea of Obama admirers without the help of event staff, directed by Senator Smith, to assist them. The area reserved for handicapped attendees was filled to capacity upon the Giles family’s arrival. At Smith’s direction, event staff painstakingly searched for a solution and found one. Two seats were available in “The Pen,” where distinguished guests, such as Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Shultz, Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, and other notables were to be seated. The Giles family was seated in this area.
The younger Giles recognized one of the honored guests in The Pen, Broward County School Board Superintendent Robert Runcie. The family met Runcie the previous Sunday at Mount Hermon AME Church, where Willie C. Cook is the pastor. Pastor Cook, aware that Al and Ruth Giles were retired Broward County teachers with 80 years of school service between them, shared that Runcie served as guest speaker on Oct. 28, 2012. The Giles family was delightfully surprised to see Runcie again in the VIP Pen at the campaign rally.
There is a reason for every purpose under Heaven.
At the campaign rally, Runcie stood very close to the path the President would follow to greet attendees after his campaign speech. The younger Giles greeted Runcie and told him, “Dad’s here,” motioning to her father to join them. The father and daughter stood behind Runcie with hopes of catching a closer glimpse of President Obama. As the President approached, Runcie called the elder Giles forward and graciously said, “You stand here.” Runcie traded places with the elder Giles so the 90-year-old veteran might have the priceless opportunity to personally greet the President.
Runcie advised Giles to stay close to the railing along President Obama’s path, so Giles would not lose his place amid so many eager Obama admirers. As the President passed by the elder Giles, the younger Giles touched President Obama’s arm, pointed to her father and shouted, “He’s a World War II Veteran!” To the Giles’ surprise, the President returned to greet the elder Giles and shook his hand. Then, as if struck by a thought, President Obama stepped away and alerted one of his staff to open a dark-colored velvet bag. The President reached into the bag and retrieved an item, then returned to the elder Giles with the item in his hand.
President Obama told the elder Giles, “I always like to do a little something special for my veterans.” Then the President shook Giles’ hand again, looked him squarely in the eyes and said, “Thank you for your service to our country.” The Presi-dent gave Giles a beautiful medallion, featuring the Presidential Seal on one side and President Obama’s signature below an engraved image of the White House on the other side.
Earlier that hot sunny day, the elder Giles had arrived at President Obama’s campaign rally with hopes of merely greeting the President or shaking his hand. Giles reports he was tremendously honored and humbled when the nation’s 44th President and Commander-in-Chief utilized a moment of his precious time to bestow the Presidential Service Medal upon Giles in the midst of a clamoring crowd. “I was astonished beyond belief,” said Giles.
Congresswoman Frederica Wilson paid tribute to Giles and other South Florida veterans at a Veteran’s Day Celebration on Nov. 9, in Miami. Fla.