46th Annual Patriots Day Program honors local veterans throughout Etowah County

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Sergeant Major Connie Grant, LTC James Hanks, Etowah County Commissioner Johnny Grant, LTC Dave Jensen and ECSO Deputy Sergeant Lanny Handy are inducted into the 2021  Patriot’s Hall of Honor. Katie Bohannon/Messenger.

By Katie Bohannon, News Editor

Each year on Veterans Day, the United States honors countless men and women whose selfless contributions illustrate the meaning of service – remembering their actions and sacrifices to administer protection and aid to citizens countrywide.

As this day represents a time of reflection and respect, Etowah County commemorated those individuals whose profound regard for duty inspired them to fulfill an admirable purpose, fostering lifetimes of diligence, bravery and commitment to their communities and nation.

On Wednesday, November 10, the Gadsden-Etowah Patriots Association opened the doors of The Venue at Coosa Landing for its 46th annual Patriots Day Program, welcoming six local inductees to its Patriot’s Hall of Honor. These men notably served their country and county as either members of the military or law enforcement for decades, responding without hesitation when any call for assistance arose.

“Etowah County is a very patriotic county,” said Patriots Association Chairman Col. Leonard Kiser. “There’s no question about that. We do a tremendous job supporting veterans; we have somewhere around 9,000 veterans living in Etowah County. [To the inductees and audience members] there’s a tremendous amount of sacrifice, dedication and devotion sitting right here in these seats, in these individuals.”

Hokes Bluff native Major Jeffrey Ausborn entered active duty in the United States Air Force during the early 1990s, training as a communications and computer systems programming and analysis officer. Ausborn attended pilot training and the Aircraft Commanders Course, being selected as a distinguished graduate. He later instructed student pilots in T-37B and T-6A aircrafts and as a senior pilot logged more than 2,300 hours of flight time – 167 of those designated as combat.

Ausborn served in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa, with his efforts earning him numerous awards such as the Meritorious Service Medal, the Air Medal, the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart. While Ausborn volunteered for an assignment in Afghanistan where he discovered and halted Afghan officials using an aircraft for unauthorized purposes, he was tragically killed in April of 2011, alongside fellow United States airmen and a United States civilian contractor, during an attack on the command and control center.

Ausborn is survived by his parents, Faye (who accepted the induction on his behalf) and Clifford (also a U.S. Air Force veteran), his wife Suzanna (retired U.S. Air Force), daughters Emily and Shelby and son Eric.

Etowah County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Sergeant Lanny Handy entered the U.S. Coast Guard after graduating from Glencoe High School, performing search and rescue operations on an ice breaker and buoy tender in the Great Lakes Region. He served on the Coast Guard Cutter Woodrush before his honorable discharge as a Boatswain’s Mate Second Class, E5, after which he served in the local Navy Reserve Unit.

Handy worked as an Etowah County Deputy Sheriff prior to his employment at Goodyear, returning to the sheriff’s office in 1990 until his retirement six years ago. His contributions to his home were evident in his role as D.A.R.E. officer for Etowah County schools, supervising school resource officers and facilitating communication between the board of education and sheriff’s office. Throughout the years, Handy has received recognition in the Law Enforcement Medal of Distinction and as the Law Enforcement Officer of the Year. He resides in Rainbow City with his wife of 45 years.

LTC James Hanks received his U.S. Army commission from Jacksonville State’s ROTC program, serving in the Republic of Vietnam in the late 1960s with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade. Working as an aerial observer and intelligence officer, Hanks flew more than 300 missions.

Following his actions in Vietnam, Hanks earned master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Alabama, which propelled two decades of service in education – teaching and performing administration roles at the University of Alabama Gadsden Center and Gadsden State Community College. He retired in 1993 as a Lieutenant Colonel from the U.S. Army Reserve, after serving for almost 30 years.

Alongside his wife, Jessie, of 60 years, Hanks invested in his community time and time again. The pair operated Gadsden State’s Off Campus Book Store to support students, while building a shopping center in Hokes Bluff for the city’s residents. As the recipient of the Vietnam Campaign Medal, Vietnam Service Medal and Purple Heart, Hank’s support of his fellow veterans culminated in volunteerism and the establishment of a church program to assist veterans at Pell City Veterans Home. Hanks and Jessie are the parents of three sons: Mike, Steven and Brandon, and have four grandchildren. They attend Cross Creek Church, where they were founding members.

Before his retirement in 1994, RTC Dave Jensen served 22 years in the United States Army. Beginning in 1972 as a Regular Army 2nd Lieutenant of Infantry for the ROTC program at the University of Delaware, Jensen acquired several positions and performed subsequent assignments as the years progressed. In 1989, he took command of the 3rd Battalion 7th Infantry Regiment, commanding the first combat experience in almost 20 years since Vietnam. His final assignment was Chief of Exercise Branch, Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations at the Pentagon.

Jensen is the award recipient of the Army Commendation Medal, Army Achievement Medal Southwest Asia Service Medal, Overseas Service Medal and Combat Infantry Badge, among others. For the past 23 years, he has served as the Director of Human Resources at Mountain View Hospital in Gadsden.

Two brothers were commended as new members of the Patriot’s Hall of Honor – Sergeant Major Connie Grant and Etowah County Commissioner Johnny Grant.

Connie Grant devoted over 39 years to the United States Army, almost all of those signifying active duty. As a graduate of the United States Army Sergeant Majors Academy and numerous special operations qualification and training courses, Grant trained as a Special Forces Communications Sergeant and a Special Forces Medical Sergeant as a member of the 20th Special Forces Group.

While an M-Day Guardsman, Grant worked as a home builder, Gadsden firefighter and EMT. In 1990, he volunteered as an official member of the Alabama National Guard Counter Drug Program. Contributing to the Etowah County Drug Task Force, he assisted law enforcement statewide in drug eradication. Mobilized with the 20th Special Forces Group, Grant served in Operations Desert Shield, Storm and Enduring Freedom, deployed in both Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa. He also traveled to Central and South America, embarking on missions in Ecuador and Bolivia.

In Africa, Grant acted as the Command Sergeant Major of the 20th Special Forces Group and in Afghanistan, he served as a Special Forces Company Sergeant Major. His accreditations manifest in numerous awards, including the Combat Infantry Badge, Bronze Star Medal, German, Canadian and Italian Parachutists Badges, Army Achievement Medal and Army Commendation Medal. With countless relatives involved in both law enforcement and the military, Grant shared that the Patriot’s Hall of Honor award, especially alongside his brother, is humbling.

“It’s an honor to serve this country and state,” said Grant. “It’s important to honor all veterans – they deserve all the honor, [along with] first responders, who go out every day not knowing if they’re coming home.”

Grant operates a family farm with his wife, Reese City City Council member Glenell. His family sponsors a scholarship for one deserving West End High School student each year.

“She’s the real hero of it all,” Grant said of Glenell, who supported Grant and their two sons, Shane and Jamie (also veterans), who were all three deployed at one time. “She kept the family together.”

For almost 50 years, Johnny Grant has dedicated himself to the betterment of Etowah County. His commitment to service began in 1975, when he became an auxiliary officer with the Altoona Police Department. After only six months, Grant realized that profession was his purpose – a calling he wanted to fulfill the rest of his life.

“I was looking for a career where I felt I could help people,” said Grant. “This was something I could do to serve the citizens of Etowah County, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”

Just three years later, Grant became an Etowah Deputy Sheriff before transferring to the Etowah County District Attorney’s Office as an investigator. In 1996, Grant returned to the sheriff’s office where he held every chief position in the agency with the exception of the administrative division. Following his retirement, Grant was elected as the District 2 Representative for the Etowah County Commission in 2016, earning his seat once again in 2020.

Throughout his career, Grant responded to national crises including the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, administering recovery and rescue efforts. While Chief Deputy, Grant risked his life attempted to rescue trapped residents during the aftermath of the 2011 tornados that swept through North Alabama, earning him the Etowah County Sheriff’s Department Medal of Valor and commendations from the Alabama House and Senate.

“I’m very humbled [to be inducted into the Patriot’s Hall of Honor],” said Grant, who felt he was not deserving of the recognition, but extremely grateful. “It is a great honor. There are a lot of great people who have served and even died, whose names are in the Hall of Honor. It feels great [to share the award with his brother, Connie]; a lot of our friends, family and myself feel he has been deserving of this for a long time. I’m proud of Connie and his accomplishments. The military give up a part of their lives for their country – they’re away from their family and loved ones, doing job dedicated to service that a lot of people couldn’t do.”

In addition to inducting the Hall’s 2021 recipients, the Patriot’s Day Program recognized Gadsden City High School Junior ROTC battalion commander Hunter Enders with the Legion of Valor Bronze Cross. At such a young age, Enders accomplishments are impressive. He excels at both academics and athletics, earning a top seat in his class ranking and a perfect score on the ACT, remaining involved in numerous clubs and organizations and receiving multiple awards.

As the event coincided with the 246th anniversary of the founding of the United States Maine Corps, LTC Mitchell Chastain paid homage 11 marines killed in the August Kabul airport attack: Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Darin T. Hoover Jr., 31, Marine Corps Sergeant Johanny Rosario Pichardo, 25, Marine Corps Sergeant Nicole L. Gee, 23, Marine Corps Corporal Hunter Lopez, 22, Marine Corps Corporal Daegan W. Page, 23, Marine Corps Corporal Humberto A. Sanchez, 22, Marine Corps Lance Corporal David L. Espinoza, 20, Marine Corps Lance Corporal Jared M. Schmitz, 20, Marine Corps Lance Corporal Rylee J. McCollum, 20, Marine Corps Lance Corporal Dylan R. Merola, 20, and Marine Corps Lance Corporal Kareem M. Nikoui, 20.

While Chastain also remembered prisoners of war and those missing in action, Brigadier General John Scales acted as the program’s keynote speaker. As an infantry lieutenant in the U.S. Army assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, the leader of a rifle platoon in Vietnam combat and a member of the 101st Airborne, Scales left active duty in 1975 and joined the Alabama National Guard 20th Special Forces Group. Throughout the years, Scales accomplished great feats, working as a scientist in Huntsville, commanding the 20th Group, receiving a PhD in systems engineering and publishing two military history books and one novel.

In his speech, Scales attested to the importance of patriotism – a characteristic of Etowah County citizens that flourishes year after year, evident in those recognized, those who once served and those currently contributing to their community and country each day.

“Patriotism is very important,” said Scales. “Our patriotism is a strong support of ourselves and our institutions – the things that brought us up. We support our institutions…we trust each other and appreciate each other, because we’re all Americans raised under the same banner. [Patriotism] is what we are as a people. As long as we can protect and defend our founding ideals – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – that is where our strength lies. We’re going to survive and keep improving.”

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