By Matt Wiley
A thunderous round of applause erupts from a room of men and women in uniform, elected officials, friends and family members standing to face a soldier seated under an American flag. Decorated in medals—including the Purple Heart—Cory Lake Isles resident Staff Sergeant Alex Dillman listens as many in the room speak and salute him for his service and the sacrifice he made during his more than 10 years as an enlisted soldier in the U.S. Army during a retirement ceremony at the University of South Florida in Tampa on May 21.
While conducting a night patrol during his second deployment in February 2011 to Ghazni, Afghanistan, the vehicle Dillman’s platoon was traveling in struck an improvised explosive device (IED), killing one and injuring three others. Dillman suffered three fractures to his spine (resulting in paralysis from the waist down), multiple fractures to both legs and internal hemorrhaging in his abdomen. Following more than two years in hospitals across the U.S. (including the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital, located on Bruce B. Downs [BBD] Blvd. in Tampa) Dillman officially was honorably discharged from the Army in December of 2012.
Humble, Dillman joked about having a small ceremony at a local Chick-Fil-A, but his wife Holly (who was by his side through the majority of the ceremony) and Dist. 7 Tampa City Council member Lisa Montelione conspired to put together a much more fitting ceremony for Dillman at the USF Gibbons Alumni Center.
“I had no idea that it would be this glamorous or would have this turnout,” Dillman said.
Honoring his joke, Montelione and Holly also surprised him with catering from Chick-Fil-A and a visit from the restaurant’s mascot (one of the “Eat Mor Chikin” cows) after the ceremony.
“I can’t say enough about Staff Sergeant Dillman and his wife Holly,” Montelione told the crowd. “They’re an inspiration. They lead by example and they are side-by-side every step of the way.”
Montelione made two presentations to Dillman, the first a letter from the Tampa City Council.
“The valor of (Dillman’s) service and the courage he has shown in the face of adversity is deeply appreciated by the members of (the) City Council…,” Montelione read aloud. “He continues to demonstrate that this service has never been about himself, but for the people who need him to be a leader when asked.”
Montelione also read a letter from Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who was unable to attend.
“Your record of conduct, performance and devotion to duty has been of utmost importance to the citizens of our nation and your service to our country is greatly appreciated,” Buckhorn wrote. “A true hero, your extraordinary spirit, passion for life, determination and perseverance truly set an example for all of us.”
Dillman also was presented with a Certificate of Appreciation for Service from U.S. President Barack Obama.
“I extend to you my personal thanks and the sincere appreciation of a grateful nation for your contribution to honorable service to our country,” Pres. Obama’s letter read. “You have helped maintain the security of the nation during a critical time in its history with the devotion of duty and the spirit of sacrifice in keeping with the proud traditions of military service.”
Although not in attendance, Dist. 14 U.S. Congresswoman Kathy Castor also wrote a letter for Dillman that was read at the ceremony.
“As a member of our armed services, you have gone above and beyond what is expected of most people, exemplifying that which is great,” Rep. Castor wrote. “Your resilience and courage while recovering while adapting to a normal life is not only inspiring to others, but shows that no obstacle is too great.”
Dist. 63 State Rep. Shawn Harrison (who represents New Tampa in Tallahassee) also spoke.
“I just want to say a personal thank you for your service to your country, and to your wife Holly for her support,” Harrison said. “It’s almost always the spouse that has the most difficult role in any endeavor. I’m proud of the fact that you’re a resident of New Tampa, District 63, and that I get to call you a constituent… You are a shining example of America’s best.”
Dr. Kevin White from the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital (located across Bruce B. Downs [BBD] Blvd. from USF) who helped Dillman with his recovery from his injuries after he was transferred to Tampa from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. also said a few words at the ceremony.
“For me, this is why I do what I do,” Dr. White said. “When Alex first got (to the hospital), we knew that he had a lot of potential, and our job is (to) make sure that he succeeds. One thing that we have been able to see is that (Alex and Holly) are both leaders. They don’t just sit there and wait for things to happen. They take charge and make it happen. They have a bright future.”
Retired Sgt. 1st Class Peter Weintraub, who greeted soldiers when they got to Walter Reed said that he first met Dillman in the hospital.
“Being in the military and doing your daily job does not really prepare you for the things that you see on the battlefield or in the hospital when those soldiers come home,” Weintraub said. “Seeing Alex now, he’s totally blown my mind from when I saw him when he left the hospital. When I see Alex, I don’t see someone in a wheelchair. I see a hero.”
Through all the speeches and presentations, SSG Dillman remained reticent, but graciously thanked everyone in attendance when he took the microphone at the end of the ceremony, expressing his gratitude to those that have helped him throughout his long recovery. Especially to Holly.
“I want to thank my wife,” Dillman said. “She was there for me from the beginning and I knew that before I married her. She deserves more recognition than she gets. The things she’s done, no one should have to do for their spouse.”
He also reflected on his years in the military, leading up to the accident.
“I remember enlisting like it was yesterday,” Dillman said. “I was lucky to find my calling at such a young age. It was such a good job and career. It didn’t feel like a job. I couldn’t believe that I was getting paid to do these things and have these experiences.”
The Dillmans live in a home in Cory Lake Isles that was built and given to them by Homes For Our Troops, a nonprofit veterans organization that specializes in building homes for U.S. military vets who are retired or are in the process of medical retirement from military service and have been injured in combat sometime since September 11, 2001. As of May 22, the organization has built 187 homes. The organization raises money, collects materials and arranges labor to build the homes.
Alex also said that he plans to return to school at ITT Technical Institute to pursue a degree in IT security. The couple is actively pursuing starting their family.