Veterans Day Ceremony held at Faces of Freedom in Atascadero

ATASCADERO — Ret. US Navy Cmdr. Ray Johnson and Ret. US Army Lt. Col. Al Fonzi II were named Distinguished Veterans of the Year during the 13th annual Veterans Day Ceremony at the Faces of Freedom in Atascadero.

Johnson and Fonzi II, who both call Atascadero home, were humbled by the honor and made it a point to thank their wives.

“I was asked if I had a speech prepared, I said I did and it’s just four words, ‘Thank you very much,’” Johnson said before making a few more comments. “This is incredible. I want to salute all our vets. Most of them could be up here, standing in my place for what they did.

“Above all, I want to thank my wife, Helen. She’s been the wind beneath my wings,” Johnson said.

Atascadero did not cancel or dramatically change its annual tribute to veterans due to the COVID-19 pandemic as some surrounding towns did. The ceremony is sponsored by the Atascadero Veterans Memorial Foundation. Paso Robles shifted to a drive-by display at the Paso Robles District Cemetery in place of its usual ceremony.

Atascadero Mayor Heather Moreno introduced the Distinguished Veterans, reading off their many accomplishments in the Navy and Army, respectively, and their outstanding achievements when they returned home.

Johnson served for nearly 22 years before retiring from the Navy in 1979. He entered the Navy Flight Training program in Pensacola, Fla., in January 1958 as a Naval Aviation Cadet (NAVCAD). He received his wings and commission in July 1959 — the same year he married his wife, Helen.

In October 1966, on one of his two Vietnam deployments, Johnson was on board the carrier USS Oriskany — The Mighty O — when one of the worst shipboard fires since World War II broke out on the ship when a magnesium flare was accidentally ignited and 44 men died.

Since retiring, Johnson has been the director of a Christian military retreat center for eight years, a business consultant for 15 years and the CEO-president of the county’s economic development corporation (EVC). He is a past president of the Atascadero Rotary and past board chair of the Atascadero Chamber of Commerce. Johnson served on the Atascadero City Council for eight years, three as the mayor and is currently an elder at the Atascadero Gospel Chapel.

It was no secret that Johnson was receiving the honor, but the selection of Fonzi II was kept quiet until Moreno said his name.

“This was a surprise. I had no idea anything like this was happening. All I can say is thank you very much,” Fonzi II said before recalling serving in Iraq with his son and thanking his wife. “I just want to say the hardest job in any military service is being a military wife and I want to give special thanks to my wife, Roberta. It is very lonely out there but you always know there is someone back home who is holding it all together. It has been a privilege to be your husband.”

Fonzi II is a retired US Army Lt. Col. and intelligence officer with over 36 years of military service, including enlisted and commissioned service. He began his military career with the Navy from 1969-1972, and after returning home, he joined the US Coast Guard Reserves for four years. In 1980, he joined the US Army until his retirement in 2006.

Fonzi’s military service includes multiple combat tours in Vietnam and Iraq with various assignments during the Cold War, including duty with Army Special Forces and as a liaison to Israeli Army intelligence officers.

Since his retirement in 2006, he has been employed as a consultant for SRI International, an affiliate of Stanford University. Fonzi II is recognized by the State of California as a specialist in counterterrorism, disaster management and other issues regarding Homeland Security.

Fonzi holds multiple degrees, including a master’s in International Relations from the University of Southern California.

The ceremony opened with Estrella Warbirds Museum planes flying over the patriotic crowd of nearly 500 people at the Atascadero memorial. Local radio personality Dick Mason emceed the event. Arroyo Grande’s Rebecca McKinley sang the National Anthem. Ret. US Army Sgt. Chris Key provided the invocation and benediction.

Tommy Gong and his sons, Derek and Darin, played Taps. Veterans of Foreign War 2814 Auxiliary SVP Sabrina Sakaguchi and JVP Ward Roney placed the ceremonial wreath at the Faces of Freedom base. Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 982 and the Chumash Color Guard presented the colors with the Welcome Home Color Military Heroes Flag Line.

Ret. US Army veteran and former Atascadero Police Department Chief of Police John Couch was the guest speaker. He served in Vietnam as a helicopter door gunner. He retired from a 31-year career in law enforcement, serving his last four years as the Chief of Police with Atascadero Police Department.

“It feels good to be among veterans today. There is a camaraderie that is unique,” Couch said. “That is born upon experiencing many sides of humanity that most people never get exposed to. It is definitely something that binds you together.”

Getting through this together, Atascadero