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PETE MECCA: How do you define a ‘hero’?

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran and author of “A Veteran’s Story,” a series of articles on the experiences of American veterans. In this perspective piece, Mecca reflects on what it means to be a true American hero.

After interviewing more than 300 veterans for my article series “A Veteran’s Story,” I’ve noticed that one belief among our living warriors is continuously voiced and heartfelt: There are no surviving heroes.

To survive combat means exactly that: Living to tell the tale or choosing to remain silent, yet still alive by the grace of God with the opportunity to make that decision. What is a hero? A soldier who risks his own life to rescue a wounded buddy, or the wounded buddy who continues life without legs or arms or eyesight? Is a medal for valor a recognition for bravery or a way of awarding the “lucky ones?”

Highly decorated warriors do not brag; wannabes do. My generation of American warriors returned from Vietnam to chants of “baby killer” and other insults not worthy of print. Yet now we’re referred to as “heroes.” The recognition is appreciated and long overdue, but the generation of warriors from Khe Sanh, the Tet Offensive or the Hanoi Hilton are really not comfortable with being called “heroes.” For us a simple, ‘‘Thank you for your service” will suffice.

During the volatile anti-war movements of the ’60s and early ’70s, many of us coming home from Vietnam were told to not wear our uniforms in public. Such was the mood of the country. ‘Nam vets kept quiet except among ourselves. Today is different, which brings with the recognition a cluster of imposters. Nine out of 10 males claiming to be a Vietnam veteran are lying; such is the lack of dignity of the wannabes. About 2.7 million Americans served “boots on the ground” in ‘Nam, yet only about 800,000 of us are still breathing. The ones who have passed on never heard “Thank you for your service” or had the honor to be recognized as patriotic American soldiers who were willing to serve and do their duty, yet even they would be uncomfortable being identified as a “hero.”

So, what is a hero? What did they do to receive this title? And, where are the real heroes?

You can start with the American Cemetery in Lorraine, France – 10,489 heroes are interred there. Luxembourg, Luxembourg – 5,079. Flanders Field, Belgium – 368. Ardennes, Belgium – 5,329. Rhone, France – 861. Muese-Argonne – 14,236. Cambridge, England – 468. Henri Chapelle, Belgium – 7,992. Normandy, France – 9,387. St. Mihiel, France – 4,153. Florence, Italy – 4,402. Sicily, Italy – 7,861. Cambridge, England – 3,812. Epinal, France – 5,525. Suresnes, France – 1,541. Aisne Marne, France – 2,289. Somme, France – 1,844. Brittany, France – 4,410. Oise-Aisne, France – 6,012. Netherlands, Netherlands – 5,076.

An extinct volcanic crater called The Punchbowl in Honolulu, Hawaii, is the site of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. There is no more space for future interments. The Punchbowl is the final resting place to more than 53,000 “heroes.”

In 1864, the U.S. Government paid $26,810 in a tax sale to acquire the confiscated property of Robert E. Lee. The property became Arlington National Cemetery. Approximately 625 acres are the final resting place for more than 400,000 “heroes.”

Near the Etowah River in North Georgia and in sight of Lake Allatoona with a stunning vista of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the pristine Canton Memorial Cemetery will eventually lay to rest more than 33,000 “heroes.” As of this writing, more than 8,000 have already been interred. The 775 acres were the old stomping grounds of Native American Indians who once roamed the Cherokee County area.

Veterans Day, Nov. 11, is our day, the day we survivors are given recognition as men and women who were willing to give their all in the service of their country. Conversely, Memorial Day, is reserved for the warriors who actually did give their all. They are your authentic heroes. Remember them. Honor them. They have certainly earned it.

Newton County turns down request to back $16 million in bonds for land buy
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COVINGTON — A request to guarantee $16.1 million in revenue bonds for an economic development proposal was rejected by the Newton County Board of Commissioners Wednesday night.

Commissioners met in a special called meeting where Serra Hall, vice president of project development for the Newton County Industrial Development Authority, reviewed a proposal calling for the county to back the $16.1 million in bonds. The money would have been used to purchase and install infrastructure on approximately 305 acres on U.S. Highway 278 known as Stanton Grove. The land is just across Interstate 20 from Stanton Springs at exit 101 in the eastern portion of the county.

Hall told commissioners the purchase would make it possible for the IDA to develop a “sister site” to Stanton Springs that would complement the business park that is home to Takeda and Facebook. If the property, owned by Sovereign Partners in Conyers, is sold to another buyer, Hall said the county could not control what might be built there.

The IDA holds an option on the property that will expire in December.

“We feel that the timing and atmosphere are right to do what we do in Newton County, and take it to the next level and build a product that looks and becomes that sister and complementary site that we have in Stanton Springs,” said Hall.

Hall told commissioners the IDA has about $2 million in funds and would be able to meet the debt service on the bonds for the first five years and possibly longer if the IDA acquires more funds. The IDA received $990,800 from the 2017 SPLOST and has other funds from bond fees and incentives from previous development projects.

However, commissioners expressed concerns about county taxpayers having to pay the debt service at some point if the IDA is unable to do so. In addition, there were questions about competing with Stanton Springs, where 540 acres are still available for development.

A suggestion that the county could use increased property tax revenues from Takeda and payments from Facebook to offset future debt service on the bonds was met with objections from District 1 Commissioner Stan Edwards and District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson. County Manager Lloyd Kerr said those funds would normally be incorporated in the general fund budget.

“So those proceeds are already spoken for,” said Edwards.

Henderson said revenues generated from the development of Stanton Springs, which required a 20-year investment, were supposed to provide relief to taxpayers. “Shouldn’t we be trying to give back to the taxpayers of Newton County?” he said. “People are still struggling. It seems to me right now we are trying to buy instead of save.”

District 5 Commissioner Ronnie Cowan voiced several objections, saying the price per acre at $53,000 is too high, that co-signing to guarantee the bonds is a bad idea, and that he doesn’t believe the county should be competing for development with the Joint Development Authority that owns Stanton Springs, of which Newton is a part.

“I feel like the county does not need to get into land speculation,” said Cowan. “This is a land speculation deal.”

Only District 2 Commissioner Demond Mason spoke in favor of the agreement with the IDA, saying that the county has to focus on the future to provide jobs and tax relief for residents.

“If we want to give back to our citizens, we have to focus on economic development,” he said.

Cowan pointed out that the county has worked for the past several years to improve its bond rating. He said he was concerned that adding $16 million in bonds to the $68 million the county already has issued for various projects, would be detrimental to that rating.

“This is general obligation debt, and you really don’t have an asset to offset that,” he said.

Mason made a motion to approve the agreement with the IDA, and District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz seconded the motion for the purpose of discussion.

Edwards said he couldn’t support adding the burden to taxpayers for a non-essential purpose.

Schulz said she supports economic development but felt the timing was not right to make the investment “because of the uncertainty of the time in which we live.”

When Chairman Marcello Banes called the question, Mason cast the only vote in favor of the agreement.

500-home development in west Newton gets preliminary plat
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COVINGTON – The Newton County Planning Commission has approved a preliminary plat for a 184-acre mixed-use development at Salem and Kirkland roads near the Rockdale County line.

The preliminary plat approved by the commission allows developer Pulte Homes to build 521 residences — a combination of approximately 411 single-family residences, 131 townhomes and some commercial property fronting Salem Road. There are no apartments included in the developer’s plan.

Newton County Development Services Director Judy Johnson said the development — to be known as Westfield Village — includes 55 lots that were initially developed with infrastructure in 2005, including asphalt streets, curb and gutter, water lines and stubs, sewer lines, storm drainage systems and underground electricity. However, development stalled during the recession and no homes were built on the lots. Now, said Johnson, Pulte proposes to combine the original 55 lots with an adjacent development tract that also stalled, creating the 184-acre site.

The project is located in Tier 3 of the Salem Road Overlay. That zoning designation allows greater density, said Johnson, but the trade-off is that the development will be required to meet more stringent aesthetic and design standards as well as provide more amenities.

According to a review of the project by the Northeast Regional Commission, the development will be valued at $145 million at buildout and will generate $750,000 annually in total local tax revenues.

The development is estimated to generate 11,989 total trips a day at peak travel times. Johnson said a traffic signal installed on Salem Road will provide access to the development. In addition, she said there are four other entrances and exits, two of which will connect with the Pebble Brook and Creekview Heights subdivisions. Johnson said that interconnectivity will help to mitigate additional traffic on Salem and Kirkland roads.

Rick Martin with Pulte Homes told the Planning Commission that the single-family homes in Westfield Village will range in price from about $260,000 to $350,000 and 2,000 to 2,800 square feet. He said the development will feature a common walkway, gathering places, swimming pool and park.

The next step for the developer will be to obtain a land disturbance permit, followed by a permanent plat.

One arrest made in drive-by shooting in front of Salem Road gas station on Oct. 19
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CONYERS — A Covington man was arrested on Oct. 29 in connection with a drive-by shooting that occurred in the parking lot of a Salem Road gas station. No one was injured in the incident.

Randall Johnson, 28, is facing multiple charges, including six counts of aggravated assault, possession of a firearm in the commission of a crime and aggressive driving.

According to reports from the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office, the incident began about 12:25 a.m. at the Shell station at 2130 Salem Road in Conyers, just off I-20. Deputies responded to a call of shots fired. When they arrived, the store clerk said that a blue Dodge Avenger had run into the back of Chevrolet Trailblazer parked at the store, and that two people got out of the Avenger and fled. She said shots came from a third vehicle passing the store, with one shot striking the front window. The clerk then ran into the office and locked herself inside for safety.

Two men were in the game room in the store at the time of the incident, but both said they did not see or hear anything.

A driver passing the scene at the time of the incident gave a statement to investigators. He said he had just exited I-20 onto Salem Road and as he approached the traffic light, he saw the Avenger and a black Mazda go by at high rates of speed. The Avenger pulled into the station parking lot and the witness said someone in the Mazda fired two or three shots toward the Avenger, which then hit the back of the parked vehicle. The witness said he saw two people get out of the Avenger and run. He added that the Mazda went about 200 yards down the road and did a U-turn, then came back and fired several more shots at the Avenger before turning east onto I-20. The witness said when he returned to the gas station, the Avenger was gone.

Investigators were able to view surveillance video footage of the incident. It showed the two vehicles on Salem Road, with the Avenger turning into the parking lot and hitting the parked vehicle. The video showed a male driver and female passenger exiting the vehicle, with the female running into the store and the male running by the front door. The male started to walk back to the door when a lightbulb shattered from a bullet striking it, and the male turned and ran toward the rear of the store.

After the Mazda had gone by the second time, the male and female returned to the Avenger, got back in it, and drove off southbound on Salem Road.

Investigators found the bullet hole in the window of the store and two shell casings on Salem Road in front of the store. Further investigation led to the arrest of Johnson on Oct. 29.