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Freedom Fest celebrates American freedom, eight local veterans

Florida Times-Union - 7/11/2019

Fourth of July may have passed, but this weekend's Freedom Fest is another chance to celebrate American freedoms.

The third annual event at the Jacksonville Beach Seawalk Pavilion will feature musicians, 60 local artists and vendors, hot-dog eating competitions and more.

The creators of the event originally wanted it to coincide with the Fourth of July, said Charles Wagoner, the 904 Happy Hour Corp. director of sales and marketing. But Jacksonville Beach already hosts fireworks every year, so Freedom Fest chose the second Saturday in July.

"Do a double celebration," Wagoner said. "Celebrate the whole month."

Amid music sets and a cornhole competition is a new event on the schedule: a ceremony to honor military members and veterans "who are doing great things in the community."

Earlier this summer, a press release circulated by Wagoner asked Charles Wagonereople to send in nominations for military honorees.

A nomination consisted of a person's name, military branch, what their service consisted of and why they should be honored.

The Freedom Fest Board received about 150 submissions of "really great, really honorable" people, Wagoner said. The four-person board then selected eight-- "the best of the bunch."

Marine Corps Master Sgt. Bruce Thompson is one of the eight.

After 24 years in the Marines, including work in the communication, logistics and human resources management fields as well as multiple combat deployments, Thompson retired in 2016 and moved with his family to Jacksonville.

Thompson said he and his family wanted to plant roots here and get involved with the community.

"Being a military family, we knew best how to serve military families," Thompson said.

He is now the executive director of Vets4Vets of Northeast Florida, a co-founder of VETS on T.A.P., co-chair of the Community Veterans Engagement Board of Northeast Florida, and is involved in several other organizations or boards. Thompson said he had already been involved with some volunteer work with veterans before his retirement.

He said he believes he was nominated by Marine Corps Sgt. Nathan Bradley, 904 Happy Hour's veteran liaison and a fellow honoree Saturday.

Thompson said he knows Bradley well because "the veteran circle is very tight."

Thompson said he always feels "a sense of pride and accomplishment when someone thinks highly enough of you to nominate you."

The other six honorees are Marine Corps Sgt. Fred Blaz, Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Rebecca Schilling, Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Justin Cabrera, Army Lt. Col. Laura Hart-Wickett, Air Force Staff Sgt. Nathan Wagner, and Army Staff Sgt. Jamal Hafiz.

The ceremony honoring these eight will be on the main stage at 6 p.m. The Freedom Fest begins at noon and ends at 10 p.m. Admission is free, though VIP tickets can be purchased for $60.

Thompson will be running a VIP refreshment tent with Vets4Vets and encourages people to come to the festival.

"It's going to be a beautiful Saturday," he said.

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(c)2019 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)

Visit The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.) at www.jacksonville.com

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