For Andy DeBona moving a lot became away of life.
DeBona is a retired Marine and during his 25-year stint in the corps he lived everywhere from New York, to South Carolina to California.
However, when he and his wife Chris found their way to Ennis more than 20 years ago, they felt right at home.
“I like to describe it as a place that has one of everything, but a stoplight,” DeBona said of Ennis. “I consider Ennis home and the people – primarily it’s the people.”
And the feeling is obviously mutual, as DeBona has been named this year’s Ennis Fourth of July Parade Grand Marshal.
When he heard he’d been picked, DeBona was shocked.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “It’s obviously an honor.”
The theme for this year’s parade is “Let Freedom Ring,” and DeBona’s life has illustrated such a patriotic slogan.
Born in 1936 in Johnstown, Pa. DeBona grew up hunting and fishing in the mountains of western Pennsylvania. At 18 he enlisted in the Marines and was picked to play football for the Paris Island, S.C. Marine football team.
He originally enlisted to learn a profession and serve his country.
“I went in to get an occupation, get out of the Marine Corps and continue my life as a civilian,” he said.
But his leadership ability and aptitude for being a Marine shined and DeBona worked his way up the ranks. He enlisted in 1955 and in 1961 was one of 25 Marines to be invited to attend officer candidate school, after which he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. After his commission, he was sent to infantry training.
In the early 1960s, the Cold War was beginning to ramp up. The Cuban Missile Crisis brought the threat of nuclear war to homes around the country and then Vietnam became a concern.
By 1965 American military operations in Vietnam had ramped up significantly. That same year DeBona was made a captain and assigned to Camp Pendleton in California. He was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 26 Marines and shipped out for his first tour in Vietnam in late 1966. In January of 1967, he was made company commander of Mike Company in the 3rd Battalion, 26 Marines.
His battalion fought in the Co Bi Thanh Tan Valley through the first three months of 1967. It was tough fighting against the Vietcong.
“The buzz words at the time were search and destroy,” he said. “We would search, they would destroy. They knew the country so much better than we did.”
The attrition rate was extremely high for the Marines in his battalion, DeBona said.
Of the four rifle company commanders with the Battalion, he was the only one left – three had been killed and one wounded.
“When I was there my main priority was to keep my Marines alive and to kill the bad guys,” he said.
His first tour ended Oct. 3, 1967 – his birthday. That was the only year he had two birthdays as he crossed the International Dateline on his way back to the states.
Back in the states, DeBona continued with his training and did a stint as a recruiting officer in Cincinnati.
He also was trained in the Vietnamese language and in supporting arms in anticipation of his second tour in Vietnam, which started in June 1971. It was about the time when the U.S. was beginning to draw down troops in Vietnam and DeBona was inserted with a Vietnamese Marine Battalion. He was the replacement senior adviser to the battalion. He started with them on June 11; the day after the adviser he had replaced was killed.
“There I am on my third day back in Vietnam and I’m the only American in the 7th Battalion,” he said.
He served 10 months in combat as an adviser with the Vietnamese before heading back to Camp Pendleton for good.
After Vietnam, DeBona enrolled in the Marine’s college completion program and simultaneously earned his Bachelor’s in psychology and communications and Master’s degree in psychology.
DeBona eventually earned the rank of lieutenant colonel. However, in 1980 he was diagnosed with cancer and given between six months and two years to live. He retired from the Marine Corps with full disabilities.
Despite losing his hair and dropping to 167 pounds, DeBona successfully fought his battle with cancer and decided it was time to see the country.
So he and Chris loaded up a motor home towing a little Fiat convertible. They were on the road for three years following the changing leaves in New England, experiencing Mardi Gras in New Orleans, basking in the sun in Baja and eventually discovering the trout streams of southwest Montana.
“It was great,” DeBona said. “Not a care in the world.”
When they first came to Ennis, it was like a time warp. People in town got to know them quickly and it was a place you could leave your keys dangling in your car’s ignition.
“People were extremely friendly,” he said.
By the third year they came to town, the couple started looking for property and now they split time between Ennis and Palm Desert, Calif.
Look for DeBona in the Ennis Fourth of July Parade, which will kick off at 10 a.m. and is sponsored by the Ennis Chamber of Commerce.
Veteran parade goers get their spots early as people crowd the town’s Main Street for the event. The chamber of commerce will again be selling 50/50 tickets before the parade. Parade T-shirts will also be available starting next week featuring the artwork of local artist Darron Locke.