Ocean City sand sculpture honors Navy SEALs

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Three families volunteer to help create a tribute to the nation's "most extraordinary fighting men"

Ocean City tribute to the Navy

OCEAN CITY – Spread out across the sand on the Seventh Street beach on Thursday, Aug. 2, the sand sculpture reading, “50th Anniversary of the U.S. Navy SEALs” sent a simple, but powerful message.

Honoring the unit established five decades ago by President John F. Kennedy to operate in any environment, sea, air and land, the first such patriotic tribute of its kind will be used as a prototype as celebration continues across the nation.

“This is what it means to be an American,” said Carmella LaSpada, founder of No Greater Love, a nonprofit, humanitarian organization founded in 1971.

“We are dedicated to ensuring that those who died for our freedom will never be forgotten. We provide a sense of history, about what it means to be an American,” LaSpada said. “We will be doing this in many other places, and we will use this sculpture as a model. We’ll say ‘This is what we did in Ocean City.’ We’re going to use what we have done in Ocean City to bring the country together.”

The sand sculpture was nearly derailed when, at the last minute, LaSpada was without a sculptor. She enlisted the help of an old friend, city publicist Mark Soifer.

“Mark told me that Ocean City was having a sand sculpting contest the day before we planned to do this,” she said. “So I came down and we started asking families if they would like to help. I knew I would find a family to do it. One minute I had no one and within a short time I had three families that were at the contest that were all here together, who volunteered to help. It was all about timing.”

“Everyone was so happy to help,” she said of the collective Cichon, Voigt and Hughes families of Hillsboro and Bloomsbury, NJ and Doylestown, Pa., respectively.

“It really shows their pride in America, and that’s what we’re all about,” she said. “To have families volunteer shows you what America is all about. They are so happy, look at this, it’s just wonderful.”

“You can’t buy this kind of enthusiasm and passion. It sets a fire; these are people that really care about America.”

Diane Hughes said her large group, 17 strong, including a dozen children, was “more than honored” to help.

“We had a lot of fun in the sandcastle contest on Wednesday, and to come back again and do this, was such a nice thing,” she said. “The kids were so helpful, everyone worked together. We feel so good about helping, what a nice memory to take home with us.”

Ocean City, she said, has always been special, but with the sculpture now, in a sense, traveling across the country, being viewed and copied by others, Hughes said the families feel “very good.”

LaSpada said she was thrilled with the effort. 
“This is action, not just talk, action,” she said. “These three families spent three hours here today. They came together and worked very hard. This is the way it should be. They are good human beings, good Americans.”

LaSpada said Navy SEALs are extraordinary fighting men, elite warriors and “very, very special people” deserving of the highest honor.

She said she chose Ocean City to begin the year-long celebration for a few reasons, not the least of which is Ocean City’s own Mark Baum, a former Navy Seal and 31-year veteran of the Ocean City Beach Patrol. Baum served in Vietnam and presently is the chief of operations for UDT-SEAL Association for New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania, an organization which raises money for the families of deceased members of special warfare teams.

“We give the SEALs confidence, that their families will be taken care of in a time of crisis,” Baum said. “There is no greater thing that a Navy SEAL can do than take care of their fallen comrades.”

Baum recently organized the U.S. Navy SEAL Challenge, a run and swim on the beach in Longport to help raise funds for the families of the SEALs. He attends funerals, recruits new SEALs, screens applicants and organizes drives to help assist SEAL families in need.

Baum said he was “very moved” by the sand sculpture, especially because the year-long anniversary crusade begins in his hometown.

“This really means a lot,” Baum said. “I can’t believe the SEALs are 50 years old. The organization was 6 years old when I joined.”

Baum grew up in Ocean City, graduating Ocean City High School in 1965. After graduating Southern Mississippi University, he joined the Navy, eventually becoming a member of the elite Underwater Demolition Team.

“I wanted to be a Navy frogman,” he said.

Part of SEAL Team 2, serving on the East Coast, Baum spent six years in active duty before joining the reserves. He worked for the OCBP before and after the Navy, retiring in 2007.

He credits the OCBP, and the late former Capt. George Lafferty for his Navy success.

“I was a lifeguard before I joined the Navy,” Baum said. “I started when I was in high school, in 1963 under Capt. Lafferty. The OCBP was the place where boys and girls became men and women. The OCBP prepared us to go to war and we didn’t lose one lifeguard at war.”

“If it hadn’t been for the beach patrol, and Cap Lafferty, I wouldn’t have made it through the Naval training. Captain was a great man, I can’t say enough about what he did for me. He ran the beach patrol like the military. He made a man out of me.”

Baum said that when it came time to join the military at the height of the Vietnam war, he did not think twice about joining the Navy.

His former eighth grade teacher, Delphine Schmidt, inspired him.

“We read a story in the Reader’s Digest,” he said. “The story was about Navy frogmen. She made it seem so interesting, and she helped give me the confidence that I could do it.”

Baum said he never dreamed his Navy career would last this long.

“I love what I do,” he said of his work with the SEALs. “After that storm came through in June, I put in nine days, 130 hours doing security for Atlantic City Electric. We were there to secure the site and the supplies. We were at the Atlantic City Race (Course), with 400 trucks and 250 linemen working 16 hour days. It makes you feel good to be a part of something like that.”

LaSpada said she was destined for a television career, but fate intervened. While organizing a USO tour in Southeast Asia as a White House special projects aide, she met a wounded medic who would change her life.

During a battle in Vietnam, she explained, the young medic desperately tried to save 35 of his wounded comrades, but each of them died in his arms.

Though he survived, his spirit was broken. LaSpada sat by the medic’s bedside, and he asked her to promise she would do something so that each of the men who died, and their families, would not be forgotten.

No Greater Love was born.

“If you ask a child what Memorial Day is about, they say it’s the day the pool opened,” she said. “Our mission is to make sure people understand history. Our heroes died so that we can have the freedom to swim on Memorial Day, but we cannot forget them, we have to give back.”

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