Charles Claybaker is one of the lucky ones. Seven years ago he survived when the tilt-rotor aircraft he was in crashed into the Afghanistan countryside at 90 mph. It was his fifth and final combat tour and his injuries were extensive–he has traumatic brain injury, post traumatic stress, his right hip and leg were all but destroyed along with numerous disks in his back–but he was lucky–three people died.
Honoring local veterans who did not make it back alive is a dream of his and a group of local veterans and supporters involved with the Claybaker D.U.S.T.O.F.F. Foundation which he established to provide combat veterans assistance during times of transition and hardship.
The St. Petersburg native says a home from Building Homes for Heroes was part of his inspiration.
“When my wife Kandice and I got our house … I really wanted to give back to the community that invested in us. I wanted to pay that forward,” says Claybaker. “I noticed that we didn’t have a memo- rial for Iraq and Afghanistan casualties and so we decided to address that issue.”They plan to build three memorials in the county with the St. Petersburg Veterans Memorial in Dell Holmes Park the first to be completed. A dedication ceremony is scheduled for Jan. 27 at 11 a.m.
This memorial will honor local casualties of all wars beginning with WWI. It has a walkway that leads from the one side of a walking trail into the memorial then back out to the other side of the trail with a 20 foot flagpole in the center. Plaques attached to the walls will list the names of the 106 veterans from the area who died fighting for the country.
“We had to bring it (ground level) up 3 feet, so it actually changed the whole drainage layout of this area,” says Claybacker on a sunny December day at the park. “It joins the walking trail and in the morning, it’s probably one of the better sunrises in St. Pete.”
He says the cost will end up being between $40,000 and $45,000 which he believes is a bargain.
“That’s actually the most impressive thing. We had a huge amount of volunteer labor. We couldn’t get this done for the price without all the volunteers.”
Booth Design Group and Wanamaker Jensen donated their design skills, JMT where his wife is an engineer helped. Businesses and individuals gave their time, treasure, talent or materials including Tampa Bay Pavers, Keystone Tile, DOMA Home Furnishings, SeaCritters patrons, St. Petersburg West Rotary, the City of St. Petersburg including Commissioners Charlie Gerdes and Steve Kornell, along with Don Schmidt (D.U.S.T.O.F.F. executive director) and wife Myreen, Ian O’Connell (D.U.S.T.O.F.F. vice president) and Karen and Greg Hunt.
“There are so many others,” adds Claybaker, “we would like to give a special thanks to everyone who contributed and helped make this happen.”
“It is important that we never forget the sacrifice our veterans made for our city and our country,” said city Commissioner Steve Kornell, who Claybaker said was a big supporter.
“I admired Charles from the beginning as his injuries from the Osprey crash were severe along with PTSD and TBI,” says Schmidt, a fellow veteran. “He had such a great attitude and wanted to help others making the transition to civilian life. I funded his upfront costs to establish the foundation with the goals of helping homeless veterans, and recognize those vets from St. Pete that had sacrificed their lives serving the country. We recruited Ian O’Connell to head the fund raising efforts and after nearly three years the memorial will be completed. Charles is a dedicated young man that has given so much for his country and still is doing more and wants to continue to help those veterans in need.”
For information go to www.claybakerdustoff.org.