Dan Sheppard, Pipe Major

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Freedom Trip 2019 (May 23rd Post #2)

In many ways, World War II is a history lesson that teaches the power, potential and possibilities of allies. Now, if you will, hold that thought.

Since my first Freedom Trip post, several people have asked me about the group itself. Are the participating Freedom Trip pipe and drum band members veterans? How many times has this trip been made? Basically, what’s the history, what’s the story? I’m embarrassed to say, but until I started fielding these questions, I truthfully did not know. So, I made a few calls this week to the group coordinators to get myself educated, and what I learned was that Freedom Trip 2019 is another story of allies, and a pretty fascinating story at that. Two individuals from different countries, united by their patriotism, respect and friendship, have created a tradition that is still evolving. Here is my best effort at telling the story of the Freedom Trip allies.

(L) John Fischer, Capt., Palm Beach County Fire Rescue (retired), and (R) Carl Verstrepen, Belgium Firefighter from Brussels, are the Freedom Trip founders.

The story begins with Carl Verstrepen, the first ally of this story. Carl is a Belgium firefighter, EMT from Brussels. He is also a board member of the non-profit group called Fire Observers and has served in that capacity since 2003. Fire Observers was created after a group of Belgium firefighters traveled to Bakersfield, California for training purposes with the Kern County Fire Department. For the duration of a week, the Belgium firefighters ran emergency calls with the their U.S. brothers and sisters and in their off hours, enjoyed local sites and experienced a bit of American culture. It was such a successful trip, that a second trip to San Diego, California was set up for the following year and “Fire Observers” was officially born to keep the yearly experience ongoing. Every year since, Belgium Fire Observers have trained with many different agencies throughout the United State. Carl began organizing and coordinating these trips in 2004 and has been doing it ever since.

During a Fire Observers trip in 2011 to Palm Beach County Fire Rescue, Carl met John Fischer, the second ally of this story. John, was a Captain with Palm Beach County Fire Rescue. In addition, he was an accomplished bagpiper and also involved in coordinating the annual Delray Beach St. Patrick’s Day Parade. John and Carl hit it off during that first visit and John invited the Fire Observers back the following year to participate in the Delray Beach parade, which they did. Generally each year, John had uniformed service personnel lead the parade, but in 2012, his vision was to have WWII veterans lead the way. Because of their advanced age, John arranged for the veterans to be pushed in transport chairs by uniformed personnel with the remaining uniformed officers and a large pipe and drum presence, following directly behind. carl_vet


Carl Vestrepen assisting a WWII hero during the Palm Beach Florida St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

When Carl learned of John’s plan for the veterans, he asked John for the honor of being chosen to accompany one of our WWII servicemen during the parade in that capacity. It was this simple idea of “putting the veterans first” that would later lead to what is now known as the Freedom Trips.

And as an aside, Carl struck up a special friendship with the WWII veteran to whom he was assigned. True to Carl’s nature, that friendship continued long after the parade was over. Carl called the elderly man regularly on the phone and maintained their friendship until his passing. Carl, along with other Belgium Firefighters, have been returning to participate in the Delray Beach parade every year.

In 2016, John traveled to Belgium to visit Carl. Carl had told John to pack his dress fire department uniform (Class A’s) but didn’t tell him why. As a surprise, Carl took John to attend the WWI Memorial Day Ceremony at Flanders Field American Cemetery where 411 American WWI soldiers are buried or commemorated. The ceremony was very moving and John was struck by the genuine outpour of honor, respect, and gratitude that the Belgium people continue to show OUR fallen soldiers who helped liberate them in both world wars. John and Carl both wished there was more of an American presence at the memorial.  Carl and John noted that the 100 year anniversary of the end of WWI would be in 2018.  Motivated by the Flanders Field memorial, John and Carl began planning and working on a trip to again “put veterans first” and Freedom Trip 2018 was initiated. It was John’s background as a bagpiper that lead to the idea of having American pipers and drummers travel and participate at various war memorials in Belgium and France.

After a tremendous amount of coordination and planning, Freedom Trip 2018 took place. About 30 members of Nassau County Long Beach Pipes & Drums, and a few others from around the US took part in this first trip. The group visited and performed at numerous places including another very emotional memorial service at Flanders Field American Cemetery remembering the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI. Through a well thought-out mixture of performances and tourism, (much like Carl had coordinated with the Belgium Fire Observers), Freedom Trip 2018 was a huge success.

Following the high of 2018, Carl and John were extremely motivated to to organized a Freedom Trip 2019 for the 75th anniversary of D-day but Nassau County Pipes & Drums said they just couldn’t commit to leading again so soon. As it turned out, Mike West, from Colorado Emerald Society (CES) Pipes & Drums was one of the “few others” along for Freedom Trip 2018. Mike stepped up and said he would present Freedom Trip 2019 to his CES band. They agreed to be the lead band, but only had 10 band members able to take the trip. In an effort to recruit more pipers and drummer to participate, John Fischer put a notice out nationally via social media and listed the CES band as the lead / host band. It was through John Fischer reaching out to other firefighter/police pipers and drummers that I heard about Freedom Trip 2019 and got on board as quickly as I could. 

So there it is, the Freedom Trip history in a nutshell. A story that teaches the power, potential and possibilities of allies. I raise a pint to Carl Verstrepen and John Fischer for the opportunity their combined friendship and patriotism (along with an enormous amount of work) has created. What an honor it is to be a member of Freedom Trip 2019. For me, this will be a trip of a lifetime and one I hope will help the Freedom Trip tradition thrive.


PS: Just fyi, in talking to these guys, Carl and John each stated the other was the one who did all the work.

Read more about Freedom Trip: Post #1, Post #2

Freedom Trip 2019 (May 8th Post #1)


Well, today is May 8, 2019. In about 20 days, I will fly out of Dallas to join a group of United States pipers and drummers and together we’ll spend 12 days in Belgium, Luxembourg and France as members of the official Freedom Trip 2019 band. Our purpose is to provide a pipe and drum band presence at a number of WWII memorial events being held to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-day. Our performances will culminate on June 6, 2019 at a D-day service on the grounds of the Brittney American Cemetery and Memorial in Saint-James, Normandy, France. This cemetery is where over 4,400 American soldiers, who never returned home, are laid to rest.

For me, this will be a once in a lifetime “bucket-list” experience. I’ll be able to take part in official ceremonies at sites such as Jack’s Woods (where the Battle of the Bulge took place), Sainte-Mére Église and Normandy where the allied troops made their D-day invasion. It is also an incredible honor for me to be part of the Freedom Trip 2019 pipe and drum band. This band is made up entirely of fire and police professionals from across the nation. For many of us, we will begin the trip hardly knowing each other yet sharing the incredible honor of coming together to pay tribute to our WWII heroes on the same soil where they fought relentlessly for freedom and ultimately changed the course of world history during a very dark time. By the end of this trip, those who are already referring to us as a “Band of Brothers” will probably be correct.

I knew the minute I learned of the opportunity to be a part of this group, that it was something I should and needed to experience. Since I made that commitment a year ago, I’ve spent a good deal of time reading and watching documentaries on WWII and in particular the events leading up to June 6, 1944. I have also noted with disappointment how many Americans, especially young Americans today, are shockingly unfamiliar with even the most basic WWII facts. Not long ago, I was telling a young, highly educated medical professional at my doctor’s office about the trip and when I mentioned D-day, she looked puzzled and asked, “What’s that?” I did my best to explain it in a nutshell. After that, I simply encouraged her to do a little Googling on WWII and watch “Saving Private Ryan”.

Anyway, I’m not meaning to sound judgmental, I’m bringing up our nation’s fading memory of the war as a sad fact, not a judgement. I include myself as someone who could have and should have educated myself more years ago. For those of us who didn’t experience WWII first-hand it’s a tough time in history to wrap your mind around. But I will say this. After spending months watching, reading and soaking up a lot of information, the knowledge has changed me. I have always respected and admired those who serve/served in the military but now, after having immersed myself in some WWII history, I simply don’t have the words to describe the depth of gratitude I feel for those soldiers. The tremendous sacrifices they made, their bravery and courage, all the individual stories, all the pain and triumphs seem alive in me somehow in a whole new way.

So, in the hopes of taking one or two of you along with me on my Freedom Trip 2019 experience, I am going to try to journal my time leading up to and including my time “over there”. It’s important to me to attempt to share what I anticipate will be an emotional mixed bag of sadness, triumph, disbelief, respect and pride. I am confident Freedom Trip 2019 is going to open my eyes and I hope you will read along and share in this WWII experience as well.


PS The photo above is of WWII Scottish Bagpiper/Hero John Millin. More on him later.

Read more about Freedom Trip: Post #1, Post #2

RIP Gubitosi

charles_guy_gIt’s always emotionally difficult to play at the funeral of one of your own. Today we said goodbye to a very loved and respected CCFD brother, Charles Guy Gubitosi. A special thanks from Clark, Tom and myself to members of Water’s Edge Pipes & Drums, (Roberta, Mike & Dona) and members of Brownsville Fire Department Pipes & Drums (Joey and Gabe) for helping make the band complete. I received countless comments about the impact the band had on the service. One of the most memorable was from the Air Force Chaplain.  He said he has been to hundreds of funerals in the course of his duties and of all the pipe & drum bands he has come across, we were the best he had ever heard.  I was very proud of our contribution and I feel certain Gubitosi was looking down smiling.

Charles Guy Gubitosi, father, son, brother, firefighter, paramedic, and Local 936 member passed away on Tuesday, October 6, 2015 at 9:00 a.m. at the age of 54. Charles had an irresistible personality and love for his family and he made an incredible impact on everyone he met. He could light up a room with his extraordinary smile.

Charles was a firefighter for 30 years in Corpus Christi, Texas. He was also a phlebotomist at the Coastal Blood Center. During his life Charles helped to save many lives and even after his tragic death, as an organ donor, he continued to help others and save lives. His job was his personal passion.

Charles graduated from Vineland High School in 1978. He then joined the Navy in the Naval Air Division and served for 4 years. After serving in the Navy he studied at the Ocean Corporation in Houston, Texas and became an offshore diver.

Charles in every sense was a true professional but more importantly an amazing and compassionate person. He brought happiness to everyone who knew him.

It is a tragedy that we will have to live our lives without him. He leaves behind his “rock star” sons, Charles Maxwell and Chad Robert who were his whole life. He raised them to be incredible young men with the help of his mother in law Alma Villegas and help of Robert (Grandpa) as well.

He leaves behind his father Charles Gubitosi, his sister Stephanie, and her husband William Lenchinsky as well as brother in law Paul Lenchinsky, their mother Teresa Lenchinsky and his dear niece Alexandra. He also leaves behind his aunts and uncles: Chetty Gubitosi, Addie Gubitosi, Marie (Gerald) Simon, Albert (Helen) Gubitosi; his cousins Lisa and Michael Munshower, Eileen (Carl) Hoffman, Loretta (Richard) Vogl and Paula (Dan) Mayo, and Paul (Jean) Sipala.

Charles has many other family members in heaven. His beloved mother Angela Gubitosi, she loved you so much; Josephine (Carmine) Florentino, Carmela Gubitosi, Patricia (Paul) Sipala, his grandparents, Gaetano and Adelina Gubitosi, his maternal Grandmother Rose Fontanazza and William Lenchinsky Sr.

Also, pray for his first wife Linda Gubitosi and the boy’s mother Carrie Gubitosi.

Charles was uncensored in expressing himself and was a true free spirit. Charles was fulfilled when he was with his sons, through his work, and when he was riding his Victory motorbike. Playing in his band also gave him great joy, he loved his music. Charles will also be remembered as an accomplished drummer; writer, guitarist and piano player.

Charles left the world with his resounding smile and his zest for life. He was a true charmer. He will be deeply missed.


Bagpiper Dan Sheppard shares a moment with his Airedale Terrier, Guinness.

Dan Sheppard by the Corpus Christi bay.