The CSRA hosted a massive demonstration of community support for the country’s military at Evans Towne Center Park on Saturday, May 16. The largest privately funded Armed Forces Day celebration in the country, Thunder Over Augusta is the brainchild of three local businessmen — Donnie Thompson, Andy Jones and the late Dale Phelon — who wanted to give something back to the men and women who serve our country.
Donnie Thompson, CEO of Windsor Jewelers, explains the event is all about service members and their families. He says the idea for the event came about organically during a discussion concerning how the military were being treated.
“We actually started it when some of the military weren’t being treated like we thought they should be — there was a time period when they weren’t getting the respect they should for rendering their service to the country,” he said. “So we were sitting around and decided we can’t do anything about it all over, but we can do something about it right here to show we appreciate what the military does. That’s when Dale, Andy and I decided to put on this event ourselves, about nine years ago.”
In the years that followed, the celebration grew from a moderate event in downtown Augusta to the enormous collaboration spanning the length and width of the park last Saturday. Thompson said, “We couldn’t have this event downtown now, it wouldn’t fit. It’s grown too big — we can still make it grow, but we can only handle so many people. Every parking lot will be full with people; you can’t count how many people attend, but we estimated 25,000-35,000 people during the day. There could be as many people outside as standing here watching.”
Over 15 giant inflatables for kids; static displays from multiple military organizations, branches and units; a boxing ring and demonstrations; sponsor tents and informational booths; vendors and food trucks — everything meticulously selected and arranged. Throughout the day, regularly scheduled demonstrations were announced over the sound system guiding the many thousands to see motocross bike stunts from Team FMX, lumberjack and log rolling competitions at the Timberland display, and working dog demonstrations from the K-9 Unit.
To cap it all, commanding general of Fort Gordon, Major General Fogarty, who last week praised the Thunder Over Augusta for its dedication to the military, addressed the crowd following the Color Guard and a performance by the Signal Corps Band. Reflecting upon the significance of celebrating Armed Forces Day through Thunder Over Augusta, he said, “Events like this clearly demonstrate the very close partnership between Fort Gordon and our neighboring CSRA communities, and it’s gratifying to see our neighbors make this kind of effort to highlight service members on Armed Forces Day.”
And the weather was gorgeous. At the start of the day, the sky was a glorious blue and the temperatures perfect for a day out.
Perhaps most impressive was the fact it was all free. Andy Jones of Gerald Jones Honda said, “We don’t charge anybody for anything, except if they want to buy food and drinks from the vendors, but we feed the veterans and military for free.”
The VIP tent welcomed veterans and military to enjoy hot dogs and hamburgers, but also to enjoy each other’s company and get to know one another. Vietnam veterans from the 319th TC cooked enough for a very large crowd. When I pointed out the day was Armed Forces Day and their day too, I was told, “This is our way of celebrating. Hopefully we can make the ones in the armed forces today appreciate us old people.”
Headed by John Bowen, this unit has stayed together since it deployed from Augusta to Vietnam in 1968-69, during which time they lost one man. Since their return, they have remained connected and now enjoy reaching out to other veterans and active duty. They have been serving food at Thunder Over Augusta for six years, and John Bowen said they have seen the event grow at a phenomenal rate, “The first time we fed maybe 60 troops and this year we’re looking at about 1,000.”
The reason this unit feeds fellow veterans and service members is simple.
“We hope the younger veterans will take heed and carry on the tradition, Bowen said. When we went to Vietnam, we were fortunate because we were able to support each other; we had each other to depend on. We excelled together in Vietnam, so now we’re trying to excel together in life here.”
Among the static military displays — and one of the most impressive and easily recognized aircrafts — was a fully operational CH47 Chinook. Provided and crewed by active duty National Guard, the Chinook is based in Savannah along with a 36-member unit. Pilots, Chief Warrant Officer Morris and Chief Warrant Officer Brennan, flew the CH47 to Augusta and landed at 10 a.m. sharp. The craft flies four to five times weekly, primarily as a training vehicle for basic aviation tasks, tactical low-level flying and emergency procedures training.
Chief Warrant Officer Morris said, “We’re always trying to provide a positive image of National Guard and the Army. We also support Wounded Warriors and Warriors in Transition, so it’s a chance to provide a positive experience for those who have served and perhaps were injured or wounded in service.”
All members of the Savannah-based unit have deployed on average three or four times, an accumulative deployment time of three years out of the last 10 per soldier.
On a slightly smaller scale, kids (and small adults!) were given the chance to jump in a mini C17 full replica brought to the event by members of the 315th alumni in Charleston. The crew explained the craft wasn’t a full replica because, “No, it does not fly. But it does drive. We use the C17 as an outreach and recruiting tool, and the kids love it.”
The event was an enjoyable way for the C17 crew to celebrate their military service.
“Today we’re just happy to be here. We get a lot of joy out of having people coming out and seeing their support, and yes, we get a lot of thanks. But overall, it is really important to bridge the gap in understanding.”
Logistically, Thunder Over Augusta requires a lot of hours and dedication. Andy Jones says it was all driven by honoring community.
“It’s about the community, and it’s about thanking the military,” he explained. “That’s all it’s about. Donnie and I are huge patriots and this day isn’t about us. We like to thank our sponsors, and they have a few signs out here, but at the end of the day it’s about these men and women in our community. We bring things out for the families — the entire family can come out, bring their dogs, and enjoy a wonderful day. We love our country and that’s what we do.”
A massive event requires reliable organizers. Andy Jones pointed the finger at a few individuals who not only played key roles in planning, but who have worked tirelessly to pull the various elements of the event together.
“Donnie, Shane Thompson and Stacie Adkins — they have done so much for this event,” he said. “The vendors pay to be here and that money goes to the Wounded Warriors, which is amazing. There are five sponsors: Windsor Jewelers, Gerald Jones, Janus Research, T3 and Columbia County. Columbia County helped with the entertainment — they were a huge help and helped us find the most amazing entertainment. Janus Research and T3 are here to give back to the military community. The exposure sponsors get at an event like this is far-reaching and sends a message, particularly to those growing up and living in our community, that we are supporting each other and raising the right kind of citizen.”
The sponsors were also focused on outreach and on helping the public get to know the armed forces and its technology. Everyone was encouraged to ask questions, watch demonstrations, inspect (and snap selfies in) military vehicles. Two of the main sponsors, Janus Research and T3, appreciated the chance to normalize military training, intelligence, and the growing cyber community. One of the Janus employees told me, “This is our first time as a major event sponsor. I’m proud to be part of this team, it is pretty neat the stuff we do.”
Janus employs a large number of veterans to develop its combat support services. The organization provides training in a classroom setting through simulation videos and in serious gaming. Their flat screen demo offered people a chance to see a virtual training simulation program that helps reduce both the cost and the risk of on-site tactical training.
T3 Solutions is a veteran-owned small business based in Evans and a provider of intelligence analysis — support, development and strategy. The company works to directly support several branches of the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM), the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), the United States Joint Operations Command (JSOC) and the United States Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM).
The benefit of the virtual training as offered by organizations like Janus is providing low-risk immersion training. Through accurate modeling and imaging, Janus delivers detailed training without the expense of placing trainees in a physical environment or expending resources. Their products make training available anywhere and at any time — service members can independently work on their skill set while in barracks at night or at the weekend. It’s like gaming, but the outcome is highly beneficial and practical.
Serious gaming permits users to work through their training at different levels, and measures progress in the same way as gamers “level up”, gradually removing the guidance from the game so that eventually the person playing the game is conducting the entire operation themselves without assistance. Testing, evaluation and validation are inbuilt.
To see this technology in action is truly impressive. The detail itself is astounding.
“We build videos that show concepts, some things you can’t teach with PowerPoint slides; it provides them a vision that is detailed,” said a Janus employee. “That is, the in-game training can provide individuals with an accurate image of their immediate surroundings and environment, while at other times it’s the inner workings of something they would never see, such as a satellite. With a casual video game, not everything is readable because you are only focused on what you are supposed to be doing. In ours everything is accurate and readable, from labels and details on equipment, to the posters on the virtual classroom walls.”
Another huge attraction was the Timberland Lumberjack Show. The crew came all the way from Wisconsin to take part in Thunder Over Augusta for the first time, and they got the crowd all worked up as they put on a show of log rolling, speed pole climbing, axe throwing, chopping and more. Kids shrieked with laughter as the guys showed off their mad ax skills and (sometimes not successful) rolling techniques.
For adrenalin junkies, the Team FMX motocross demo was where it was at. This year was their fourth year of showing folks just how insanely high in the air motorbikes can get, and their show didn’t let up from the second it began. As with all the demonstrations and shows, Team FMX took the chance to thank all the service members, first responders, volunteers, EMTs and teachers in the community for giving their lives to serving others. A rousing round of applause and the bikers started jumping ramps, doing crazy wheelies across the lot, and other tricks that made me feel ill watching them. And yet like the others in the massive crowd, I couldn’t look away, it was enthralling stuff.
Members of the 67th ESB were on hand with a Phoenix satellite communication terminal, a portable unit used to deploy antennae. They told me the event was a good opportunity to interface with the community, “Which we need to do — especially as I see members of the public putting pictures of our equipment up on social media and they think it’s something else. At least here, we can answer questions and let them know it’s not a scary device used for nefarious reasons — it’s used to help us talk to one another, keep in touch with our. Today we get a chance to demystify everything.”
Some of the most inquisitive people were the kids. Thunder Over Augusta prides itself on being kid friendly, and it really is. The vast kids zone was a veritable whirlwind of inflatables, and most were brand new. Donnie Thompson was thrilled to be bringing the kids something special.
“Some of the kids stuff has never even been in the state of Georgia before, and many were brand new — absolutely brand new, never used,” he said. “The fun stuff — the inflatables — we have over 15 different large inflatable toys with themes to suit all kids. They are spread across the field in a large arc to channel the kids through. There’s even a giant inflatable obstacle course.”
All ages were considered when putting together the entertainment for the night. The Rewinders wrapped up the day’s celebrations with a fabulous show of famous hits majestically backed by the Symphony Orchestra Augusta (SOA). Thompson said selecting this variety of performers was a natural fit.
“The show is a mix of entertainment that fits everyone —people who do imitations of famous, popular musicians from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s,” he said. “You won’t believe how good they are; they sing songs everyone knows and love and they are backed up by the symphony. All this stuff, it’s a big effort to get some of these people here, because they come from all over; Wisconsin, Florida, Kentucky — all over.”
Local organizations were also heavily represented. The Augusta Warrior Project works with local service members who have been wounded and need assistance. As an independent, nonprofit organization that services 12 counties in the CSRA, the Augusta Warrior Project can help veterans with education, VA benefits, employment and homelessness. Hollis Bush said, “This event allows us to reach out to veterans and to families of veterans who might know of someone who needs assistance. They can contact us on our intake number (706 951-7506) and we will work to connect them with appropriate resources.”
Supporting organizations such as the Augusta Warrior Project is yet another way Thunder Over Augusta celebrates the military. Andy Jones said that was why the event was so important to the community.
“We have one of the two facilities in the country for rehabilitation for Wounded Warriors and so that’s one reason we see so many people receiving treatment,” he said. “If you love our country, this is the deal — you have to thank them. Military guys, when they’re in harm’s way they are in serious harm’s way. It’s a tough life — a very honorable life — if you’re committed to it, that’s a calling. But they sacrifice so much and all we’re asking is for you to say thanks.”
Members of the public were also able to meet representatives of the Fisher House from Fort Gordon, and the VA Augusta Vet Center. Both organizations work hard to publicize their services. As nonprofits, opportunities to get their names out into the community are welcomed and invaluable.
Fransisco Cruz, the manager of Fort Gordon’s Fisher House, said, “Events like this allow us to support the event, but also the military and their families. We want everyone to enjoy their day, get to speak to and spend time with our military, and to get a chance to celebrate alongside them, while also publicizing our services. It’s a win-win.”
Fisher House provides military families with a place to stay close to a loved one who has been hospitalized due to illness, disease or injury. It runs entirely on donations and grants from the Fisher House Foundation.
The VA Augusta Vet Center is also challenged by its nonprofit status, but Daniel McFerran, LCSW, said the services the center provides allows veterans to live more comfortably.
“This is a continuation of service — I was a clinical social worker in the Army and this is definitely a continuation of that service, and to help veterans have a better quality of life,” he said. “The VA specialty program provides readjustment counseling services for free that help provide service members have a smooth transition from active service to civilian.”
By nightfall, the crowd had grown to a giant mass of very happy people. Naturally, the day wrapped up with the largest mid-range fireworks show in the area. Already available to view on YouTube, the show was an impressive display that lasted more than 15 minutes and the night sky lit up repeatedly accompanied by the sound of thousands of people whooping, oohing and ahhing. It was genuinely and literally awesome, and a fitting finale to a day honoring those who protect and serve.