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Okaloosa County celebrates Women Veterans Day, honors Col. Allison Black and Lt. Gen. Gordon Fornell

Okaloosa County celebrated Women Veterans Day, honoring the service and sacrifices of women in the U.S. military. Keynote speaker Col. Allison Black and Lt. Gen. Gordon Fornell were recognized for their extraordinary contributions and leadership.
Col. Allison Black and Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel

Okaloosa County held its 2nd Annual Women Veterans Day ceremony on June 12, 2024, at the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Convention Center. 

  • The event aimed to celebrate and recognize the service of women who have served in the U.S. military, featuring keynote speaker Col. Allison Black, USAF Ret., and a special presentation to Lt. Gen. Gordon Fornell.

Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel emphasized the importance of the event, saying, “This event focuses on a group of veterans who may have been overlooked by others in the past. We want to recognize these women and let them know that their service has not been forgotten and in Okaloosa County, they will always have our support.”

The celebration began with an indoor ceremony at the convention center, where hundreds of people gathered to honor the service and sacrifices of women veterans. The event opened with a welcome from Commissioner Ketchel, followed by an invocation by Col. Robert Monagle, NSOC Command Chaplain, and the presentation of colors by the Okaloosa County EMS Honor Guard.

Col. Allison Black, General Gordon Fornell and Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel (centered) with women veterans.

Children from the American Revolution and American Heritage Girls led the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance, and Natalie McClure performed the Star-Spangled Banner. Former Okaloosa County Commissioner Graham Fountain delivered greetings from Senator Rick Scott, who could not attend the event in person, and Commissioner Trey Goodwin then read a proclamation from Governor Ron DeSantis.

Commissioner Mel Ponder introduced the event’s keynote speaker, Col. Allison Black, praising her as a “hero,” “national treasure,” “role model,” and “friend.” Ponder highlighted Black’s leadership, resilience, and humility throughout her distinguished 32-year career in the Air Force.

  • Ponder spoke about the impact of Col. Black’s service and the importance of sharing her story. “Whether we talk about it in the halls of the Okaloosa County or the halls of the Pentagon, her story, her legacy, her bravery will continue to be told,” he said.

He went on to describe the qualities that make Col. Black an exceptional leader and role model. 

Local elected leaders pictured with Col. Allison Black

“These are the words that came to me. Hero. National treasure. Leader. Role model. Wife and mother. Friend,” Ponder said. “I think today, in society and culture where we have so many ones telling us who we should celebrate. I believe our fighting men and women are true heroes today.”

Col. Black took the stage to a standing ovation, sharing stories of women who found ways to serve their nation throughout history, even before it was legally permitted. “It does not matter if you’re a man or a woman. People want to serve. People want to be part of a team,” she said.

Black recalled her own experiences, including a notable story from 2001 when she became known as “the Angel of Death” over the battlefields of Afghanistan after 9/11. “That story started in 2001, just by me being a part of a great crew and my role just happened to be on the radios,” she said. “I was just trying to do my job. But I realize the impact that’s had.”

  • She emphasized the importance of representation and role models for young women considering military service, saying, “If you can see it, you can be it.” 

Black also acknowledged the progress made in recent years, with women now serving in greater numbers and in combat roles. “Women continue to make history in the military, pushing boundaries and taking on more and more prestigious roles,” she said.

During the ceremony, the Florida Daughters of the American Revolution presented their most prestigious award, the DAR Medal of Honor, to Lt. Gen. Gordon Fornell for his extraordinary leadership, service, and patriotism. Rep. Patt Maney spoke at length about Lt. Gen. Fornell’s significant contributions to Okaloosa County and his unwavering dedication to improving the lives of families in the community.

“General Fornell retired in the local area in 1993, but his service to our community didn’t end there,” said Rep. Maney. “No one has been more active and effectively engaged on a continuous basis in his efforts to improve our community and the lives of families here in Northwest Florida.”

Maney highlighted Fornell’s distinguished military career, which included serving as an A-1 pilot, flying over 200 combat missions, and holding various command and operational assignments. He also praised Fornell’s work as a test pilot and his leadership roles at Edwards Air Force Base and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

  • “As the commander of the armament division at Eglin Air Force Base from 1985 to 1987, General Fornell played a crucial role in shaping the future of our military’s capabilities,” Maney said.

After retiring from the Air Force, Fornell continued to serve his community in various capacities. He was an original member of the Okaloosa County Aviation Advisory Board, serving as its chairman in 2020. During his 14-year tenure, he helped the board navigate unprecedented challenges and played a key role in securing a long-term joint-use agreement with the Air Force for their runways and facilities.

“General Fornell’s efforts have had a tremendous impact on our community,” Maney said. “As a result of his work, our airports are now self-sufficient, debt-free, and have seen a $2.9 billion dollar economic impact.”

In addition to his work with the Aviation Advisory Board, Fornell served on the boards of the Fisher House of the Emerald Coast and the Defense Support Initiative of the Economic Development Council. He also played a crucial role in the creation of the Women Veterans Monuments at Veterans Park.

  • “The reason he is getting this today is because we could not have built this park without him,” said Commissioner Ketchel, praising Fornell’s contributions.

As Rep. Maney concluded his remarks, he emphasized the significance of Fornell’s impact on the community. “General Fornell’s style is not the style of a cigar-chomping, table-pounding general officer. He’s quietly worked to be effective. And we’re greatly honored today to have General Fornell here.”

The audience rose to their feet, applauding Lt. Gen. Fornell and his wife, Bobbie, as they accepted the DAR Medal of Honor. The recognition served as a testament to Fornell’s lifetime of service and his enduring commitment to his country and community.

The indoor ceremony concluded with closing remarks from Commissioner Ketchel and a benediction by Rev. Cecil Williams of Gregg Chapel AME Church. Attendees then made their way to the nearby Women Veterans Monuments at Veterans Park for a wreath-laying ceremony.

Col. Allison Black, General Gordon Fornell and his wife, Bobbie.

The park, unveiled in 2021, features life-sized bronze statues of eight women who served in combat during various U.S. military conflicts. The statues are strategically placed along a quarter-mile path, surrounded by native wildlife, including a nearby great blue heron rookery.

Commissioner Ketchel spoke about the potential for expansion of the park in the future. 

  • “We have plans to bring forth additional women for consideration to represent the War of 1812, the evacuation of Afghanistan, and numerous other conflicts, as well as the Marine Corps, the Army, and the Coast Guard,” she said. “This park is not just about the past; it’s about honoring the ongoing service and sacrifice of women in our armed forces.”

Among the eight women depicted at Veterans Park is Sharon Ann Lane, a Vietnam Veteran and the only American nurse killed as a direct result of enemy fire in the Vietnam War. This year’s event focused on the Vietnam War Commemoration, honoring the nation’s Vietnam Veterans and their families for their service and sacrifice. 

  • The commemoration will continue through Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2025, marking the 50th anniversary of the departure of the last American troops from Vietnam.

As the wreath-laying ceremony concluded, attendees had the opportunity to take a self-guided tour of the park and pay their respects to the women represented by the statues. The monuments serve as a reminder of the sacrifices made by women veterans throughout history and inspire future generations to serve.

In her closing remarks at the indoor ceremony, Col. Black encouraged attendees to always remember the men and women currently serving around the world. 

  • “As we get together today and celebrate one another and celebrate our future, let’s always take a moment to think of the men and women who are positioned around the world, right now, defending our freedoms, enabling others to defend their freedoms,” she said. “May God bless you, and may God bless America.”

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