With fellow student veterans Joel Gomez and Chris Kuhn at his side, U.S. Army vet Felix Perez says veterans are united as brothers and sisters.
From Felix Perez, a sophomore severely injured on active Army duty, to Monica Perez, a nurse at University of Miami Hospital who transported missiles across Afghanistan and Iraq, to Norman Kaiser, a Daytona Beach resident who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, the University of Miami observed Veterans Day by recognizing the men and women on campus, in the community, and across our state and nation who served in the U.S. Armed Forces and share the most special of bonds.
As Felix Perez, now confined to a wheelchair, told the sea of staff, students, veterans, trustees, and community leaders who filled the patio in front of the UC Rock for the November 11 tribute, being a veteran means being part of “an exclusive fraternity” that forever unites every member as brothers and sisters.
Acknowledging that eternal bond, UM President Donna E. Shalala, who proudly noted that someone from every generation of her family has served in the U.S. military, said the University is deeply enriched by the alumni, faculty, staff, and students – numbering 234 today – who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces over the decades.
“Today I’m proud to salute these courageous men and women who bring their extraordinary discipline, leadership, skills, and insights to our campuses,” she said, before summoning second-year UM Law student Noel C. Pace to the stage for the ceremony’s highlight – Pace’s celebratory promotion to colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.
Signifying Noel Pace’s promotion to colonel, his father Ronald and wife Claudia Cubillos replace the oak leaf patches on his shoulders with eagles.
One of the few new colonels confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Pace entered law school after a successful career in both civilian and military health care management, including his command of the 560th Medical Company in the Republic of Korea, participation in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and 2008 deployment to Colombia for Operation Willing Spirit, when he was Chief of the Medical Plans Division at the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM).
But Pace – who took the podium after SOUTHCOM’s Major General Ricky L. Waddell administered Pace’s oath of office, and Pace’s father Ronald and wife Claudia Cubillos affixed the colonel’s eagle patch on each his shoulders – spoke not about his own accomplishments, but of the University’s long history of support for the military. He noted, for example, that during World War II, the University trained Army air corpsmen and Royal Air Force cadets for service. Decades later, nearly every Forward Surgical Team bound for duty overseas trains at UM/Jackson Memorial Hospital’s Army Trauma Training Center, for which Pace once served as executive officer.
“You can see there is a tight fit between the University of Miami and the military,” Pace said.
Like Pace, another guest speaker, Dan Snyder, the CEO of the University’s flagship University of Miami Hospital (UMH), chose not to concentrate on the 20 years he spent in the Navy, initially as a hospital corpsmen and medic and eventually running Naval hospitals and other medical facilities.
Instead, Snyder, known as Captain Dan at UMH, introduced two veterans he has the privilege of working with — Monica S. Perez, the director of UM’s Wound Healing and Hyperbaric Center who as an Army staff sergeant drove a tractor trailer full of missiles across Iraq and Afghanistan, and Julio Albornoz, assistant director of the cardiac catheterization lab and a Navy reservist who, missing the birth of his youngest child, spent nine months saving the lives of wounded soldiers, civilians and even enemy combatants at a British Field Hospital in Afghanistan.
“What you see standing before you today is the finest of the United States Armed Forces at the University of Miami Hospital,” Snyder said.
University of Miami Hospital CEO Dan Snyder introduces fellow veterans and UMH employees Monica Perez, left, and Julio Albornez, right.
Recognizing the finest of another generation, the French Consul General in Miami, Philippe Létrilliart, concluded the ceremony by bestowing the rank of Chevalier, or Knight, of the French Legion of Honor – France’s highest honor – on three Florida residents, all U.S. Army veterans who fought alongside the French in World War II, earning their eternal thanks.
In addition to Kaiser, a sergeant in the U.S. Army 290th Infantry Regiment who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, they were Orlando’s Andrew Kunkle, another Army infantryman who was wounded in action during the liberation of Normandy; and Arthur Nagler of West Palm Beach, an Army surgical technician who participated in the liberation of Europe.
Among UM student veterans spotlighted at the tribute was Matthew Vautrain, president of the Veteran Students Organization, who in his remarks seemed to summarize the sentiments of all the vets gathered at the Rock, and all of those who admire them.
“The veteran community is home to some of the most outstanding people you could ever hope to know,’’ Vautrain, a senior in mechanical engineering, said. “The camaraderie that exists between veterans, regardless of branch of service, is unparalleled anywhere in the world. To me, that’s one of the best parts of being a veteran.”