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Army veteran Dennis Fitzgerald doesn't shy away from danger

POSTED: December 26, 2017 4:37 p.m.
Photo by Mark Swendra/

Dennis Fitzgerald, a 25-year Army veteran, is the Riceboro Volunteer Fire & Rescue Chief.

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WATCH VIDEO of Dennis Fitzgerald.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This profile of an area veteran is part of a series of articles titled "Those Who Served," appearing monthly in the Courier.

There’s an old joke where if you ask someone to reveal details about their top-secret job, they respond, “I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.”

No such worries when speaking to Dennis Fitzgerald about his 25-year Army career, one that took him to dangerous locales, such as Vietnam and Korea, serving in various covert operation and intelligence-gathering capacities.

However, he cautions, “I’m not a great talker about my life, because some of it still needs to be kept quiet.”

What Fitzgerald can say, describes a life well-traveled, with several tours of duty around the world, encompassing different assignments.

One included being stationed at the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a dangerous place that remains in the news today as tensions with North Korea have escalated.

Now, at age 70, Fitzgerald stays active serving his Liberty County community and fellow veterans.

Still maintaining a bit of danger in his life, Fitzgerald is chief of the Riceboro Volunteer Fire and Rescue. He is also commander of American Legion Post 321 and a member of Vietnam Veterans of Liberty County, chapter 789.

Asked to describe himself in just a few words, he said, “I’m a little crazy … because I like to do things at the spur of the moment.”

This might explain his life’s trajectory: Fitzgerald likes to do a lot of different things. He didn’t settle for just one military occupational specialty, but four. Upon retiring from the Army in 1990, he carved out a second career in personal security and then a third in fire and rescue.

Originally from New York, and still displaying an accent from that region, Fitzgerald has adapted well to the Southern life.

He conveniently lives across the street from the Riceboro fire station on South Coastal Highway, has made appearances in the community as Santa Claus, and was a grand marshal of the RiceFest parade.

Sadly, in June of this year, Brenda, his wife of more than 20 years, passed away.

He always wanted to travel

Fitzgerald, an only child, was born in the small town of Beacon, about 75 miles north of New York City, and grew up in a military family.

“My father was in the National Guard, after he got out of World War II,” Fitzgerald said. “He retired as a Sgt. Major.” He said he had an uncle who was a chief petty officer in the Navy.

Fitzgerald had his sights set on the military while attending Catholic high school, where he played football and baseball. “I had no real intentions of going to college. I knew I wanted to go into the military,” he said. “If I needed college, I could get it through the military.”

The most appealing aspect of military life, he said, was the travel. “We used to travel quite a bit in the summers, so I just liked the idea of travel,” he added.

“I also liked the idea of jumping out of airplanes and doing all that crazy stuff.”

A strict culture helped form discipline

Fitzgerald’s family roots are Irish and Polish. “I got a good influence of strict cultures,” he said.

His grandparents, who emigrated in 1900 from Poland, and loved this country, he said, told him at a young age, “You want a welfare check? You sweep that part of the road from here to there, and we’ll give you a welfare check … otherwise, don’t ask for it.”

Fitzgerald said his grandparents instilled pride and a sense of “this is your country, you gotta work for everything. Don’t ask for everything.”

His father became a police officer after retiring from the military, and together with his Catholic school upbringing, gave Fitzgerald additional doses of discipline. “If I did something wrong in school, before I got home, my father would know about it.”

This disclipline would prepare him well for life.

His time in Vietnam

Upon graduating high school in 1965, Fitzgerald joined the Army and went to Vietnam with the First Cavalry Division.  “That’s where I got my first indoctrination into the cruelty of war, and the things that went on,” he said.

He spent five years in Vietnam in what he describes as “military intelligence … covert operations … specialized warfare.” He spent time with the 75th Ranger Regiment. “It was a great group of guys.  I developed numerous relationships with them,” he said.

He described one of his most-tense moments occurring in Hue, South Vietnam in 1968.

”If you mention Hue to anyone who was in Vietnam, they know it was the Tet Offensive,” Fitzgerald said. “I was at the military advisory compound during that period, and if you weren’t scared then, I don’t know who you were because even the colonials -- who were there and you thought were rough and tough -- were just as afraid as you and I.”

He added, “It was scary not knowing whether you would see the next day, or the next minute or hour because you had about 100 U.S. personnel in the compound and 1,000 North Vietnamese/Viet Cong outside all with one objective -- to try to kill you.

“When the Marines rescued us, I could have kissed them.”

At the DMZ

Three tours in Korea followed. Fitzgerald said he accepted an assignment at the DMZ after Vietnam to “get a good rounded experience in the military.”

When he went there to gather intelligence, it wasn’t as easy as it was in Vietnam, Fitzgerald said, because they couldn’t get inside the country. “We just had to sit and watch the North Koreans from a distance. It was kind of hard to do.”

He said observing North Korean soldiers taught him how “nasty” that government could be, and he continues to watch with interest the tense relationship between North Korea and South Korea and the U.S., hoping that we will never have to go to war again.

He also remembers the weather there. Being from New York, he said, the cold never bothered him, but he described the conditions at the DMZ, with the snow and cold, as “wicked.”

After Vietnam and Korea

Fitzgerald was selected in 1977 for Delta Force, the Army’s elite counterterrorist unit. Unfortunately, “I didn’t make it because I broke an ankle,” he said. He ended up serving in a supportive role with different units.

He was assigned to the 513th Military Intelligence Group at Fort Meade, Maryland, where he provided communications and intelligence to field officers.

There, the colonial in charge was someone Fitzgerald had met while in Vietnam.

“The first three days we looked at each other and thought, I know you, you know me,” Fitzgerald recalled. “Finally I said, sir, don’t I know you from some place?”

He said the two had “such a great rapport that people would say, how could a staff sergeant be talking so close to this colonial and getting along with him so well?”

Later, in the early 1980s, Fitzgerald said his service “took a different turn.” He added, “I went into the more undercover fields of military intelligence. We did a lot in South America with the drug agencies.”

Over the years, Fitzgerald was stationed in such places as Fort Bragg and Fort Benning, often joining the fire departments there. His desire for firefighting began in high school, his first experience as a volunteer firefighter.

When he retired from the military, Fitzgerald moved to Cape Canaveral, where he owned a security company, specializing in undercover, personal bodyguard and event security.

During this time, he married Brenda, his third wife, in 1995. With his two children from his second marriage, and Brenda’s five kids, their family blended well together, he said.

The couple sought greener pastures and felt it was time to move. That area in Florida was “getting too much concrete and we didn’t like it,” he said.

Falling in love with Riceboro

In deciding to move away from Florida, Fitzgerald said he had one preference: to live near an Army base.

In 2002, Fitzgerald and his wife passed through Riceboro and noticed its close proximity to Fort Stewart. “We fell in love with the community,” and moved there, he said.

He joined the Riceboro Volunteer Fire and Rescue in June 2002 and today leads a group of 16 volunteer firefighters.

The group stays busy, responding to 350 to 400 calls each year, Fitzgerald said. Calls include “if someone has a boo-boo on their finger, to full blown bomb scares,” he said, referring to an incident at the SNF Chemtall plant the week before.

Additionally, “We’ve had major accidents along I-95 where I’ve shut the road down for three or four hours.”

He said he loves being able to teach the volunteer firefighters things he has learned, and “to use my military experience in how to deal with things.”

 Spending time with other veterans and serving the community

Like many in this series, Fitzgerald shares time with other veterans as part of groups that give back to the community in so many ways.

The American Legion Post 321, which he helped form, started with 25 members, and now totals 82, Fitzgerald said.

As part of Operation Local Support, the post provides holiday food baskets, mainly around Thanksgiving, to those in need. Fitzgerald said 70 baskets (each feeding six to eight persons in a family) were distributed this year.

The group builds wheelchair ramps and transports veterans to hospitals, he added.

 “We also go into local schools and talk to young kids about Americanism,” Fitzgerald said.

“Now days you go ask a kid, hey, did you ever hear about the Vietnam War? They say … Who? What?”

He said it’s even worse when you ask about the Korean War.

“We try to sit down and explain it to them. Tell them who gave you the right to be able to do this.

“A lot of them don’t know that.”

OTHER STORIES IN THIS SERIES, THOSE WHO SERVED:

* Paul Spence: Portrait of the artist as a soldier, Vietnam veteran -- http://coastalcourier.com/section/139/article/89954/

Proud veteran, Donald Singleton, still struggling with horrors of war --http://coastalcourier.com/archives/89736/

For Chaffee, service a family tradition -- http://coastalcourier.com/archives/89419/

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