Thursday, April 02, 2009

Army Salutes Obie!


Man receives Army's highest civilian award

Obie Oakley is more than just a volunteer. The former Green Beret thinks really big when helping out military brethren.

By David Perlmutt Posted: Thursday, Apr. 02, 2009

Obie Oakley just can't not get involved – especially if it's anything military or patriotic.
Twenty years ago, he and two friends raised the money to build the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial in uptown's Thompson Park. He's chaired boards and he's been a prime force behind the Carolinas Freedom Foundation, which puts on the yearly Veterans Day parade.

In 1999, after Hurricane Floyd swamped Eastern North Carolina, and his “band of brothers” from the N.C. National Guard's 20th Special Forces Group (Airborne) helped with recovery efforts. They did the same in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina rolled through in 2005.
And last year, the brothers raised money to send supplies to Afghan civilians.
Today, for all his tireless work, the Army is honoring Oakley with the Distinguished Civilian Service Medal, its highest civilian award. He'll get it in a 2 p.m. ceremony at Christ Episcopal Church.

“Obie (pronounced AH-bee) is constantly involved with soldiers, whether through the Freedom Foundation or organizations that take care of soldiers,” said retired Army Brig. Gen. Ernest Brockman, who nominated Osborne for the medal. “He's ex-military, and he's driven by the notion that he can honor soldiers by doing things to help them.”

Long military interest

Osborne Oakley Jr. doesn't know how the military grabbed hold of his life.
Growing up in Charlotte, his family wasn't military. He was a boy during World War II, playing Army with his pals on the banks of Briar Creek. He'd see paratroopers from Fort Bragg's 82nd Airborne on liberty and dream of jumping from planes.

After graduating from now-closed Central High, he chose The Citadel for college, not because he came from a long line of Citadel men – he was the first in his family to go to college.
“I needed the discipline and I thought I'd find it in a military setting,” he said.
He found it there and afterward in the regular Army, serving in the 3rd Armored Division from 1958 to '62 in Cold War Germany.

Oakley, now 72, was planning on making the military a career, when his father, Obie Sr., came to Germany to ask him to join the family printing business. He returned in 1962 to help Interstate Graphics grow – and immediately got involved in the community.
He joined the 20th Special Forces (Green Berets). He chaired the Community School of the Arts and the Charlotte/Douglas International Airport Authority.

And in the late 1980s, he and two Charlotte friends, Roddey Dowd Sr. and Tommy Norman – all Green Beret captains who served together in the Guard – decided Mecklenburg needed to honor its 101 natives who were among the 58,000 to lose their lives in Vietnam.
They raised $356,000 and built the memorial between Third and Fourth streets.
“We were in a guard unit that could have gone to Vietnam, but were never called,” Oakley said. “There was a certain degree of envy for those who went. They were doing something for the country.
“We felt that Charlotte ought to show its appreciation for those who served and those made the ultimate sacrifice.”

Team player, big thinker

His Citadel education and Army training taught Oakley to be a team player.
So when Quincey Collins founded the Carolinas Freedom Foundation, he knew to get Oakley involved.
“Obie loves this country and is concerned about the troops and their families,” said Collins, a POW in Vietnam for 71/2 years. “Plus he knows a lot of people and can open a lot of doors.”
Oakley became the foundation's executive director.
The foundation promotes patriotism, putting American flags in classrooms. It supports JROTC programs in high schools.

Yet Osborne can't do enough.

Last year, one of the “band of brothers” had a son serving in the same 20th Special Forces unit in Afghanistan. The son wanted supplies to win the trust of civilians.
The brothers were going to round up a few school supplies. Osborne got them thinking bigger. They ended up shipping 4,000 pounds of blankets, clothing and school supplies to the Afghan people.

Osborne figured out a way to get them there through a Pentagon contact he knew.
“A lot of people say they support the troops, but only put a bumper sticker on their car,” he said. “The troops are doing difficult work and need our active help. They need to know we appreciate them.”