03/28/04 — Four awarded honor of Long Leaf Pine

View Archive

Four awarded honor of Long Leaf Pine

By Bonnie Edwards
Published in News on March 28, 2004 8:29 AM

Four people were honored with the governor's highest award in a ceremony Saturday night at the Goldsboro Elks Lodge Law Enforcement Banquet.

Gov. Mike Easley sent the Order of the Long Leaf Pine to Wayne County to be given to R.C. Gregory, who survived the Bataan Death March in the Philippines in World War II. Three others went posthumously to Sheriff's Capt. Jerry Best and to Lt. Col. William "Salty" Watkins and Capt. Eric "Boot" Das of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, who died when their F-15E Strike Eagle crashed in Iraq.

Best spent 25 years working under three sheriffs. He became an ABC officer in 1986, and was promoted to lieutenant and head of the Narcotics Division the following year. He became sergeant over the Investigative Division in 1994 and captain in 1999. He was chief of detectives in 2002, when he was instrumental in proving the innocence of a man wrongly imprisoned five years. He died later that year when he was hit by a car while trying to remove a deer from a road.

Don Jones, the exalted ruler of the Elks Lodge, presented the award to Donna Best on behalf of her husband, Jerry Best.

"There are many in this room Jerry knew, respected so much," she said. "My husband would be honored beyond belief if he knew of this tonight."

She said the support she has received over the past year from the sheriff's office family has been overwhelming. She thanked the Goldsboro Police Department and the Highway Patrol for their support. "I just can't say enough about law enforcement in this community."

Troy Pate, co-chairman of the Governor's Commission of Military Affairs, presented the award to Maj. Melissa Watkins on behalf of her husband, William Watkins, who was the weapons system officer on the F-15E that went down in Iraq.

"Thank you very much. I'm very touched and very honored," said Mrs. Watkins. "We move from place to place and become part of many communities, but we've never felt as much a part of a community. On behalf of Seymour Johnson, we value very much our friendship with you all."

Pate presented the award to Col. Donald Jurewicz, vice commander of the Fourth Fighter Wing, who received it on behalf of Das.

R.C. Gregory, who survived the Bataan Death March in the Philippines in World War II, was the only one who received the award on behalf of himself. Pate said he was a young man when he heard about the Death March. "Mr. Gregory was possibly the youngest POW at that time."

On the third day of the 110-mile march, they gave Gregory a rice ball and water contaminated with gasoline. He was put to forced labor until June 1944, when he was liberated. He weighed 104 pounds.

Wesley Singleton, who was at Pearl Harbor, received a flag that flew over the U.S.S. Arizona on Dec. 7, 2003, the 62nd anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

The speaker was I. Beverly Lake, chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court. He told the group present they had served the country in a magnificent way, "and I thank you ... God bless your work and your lives. We honor you tonight."

Lake said those who received the award posthumously died too young, "no matter how old they were." He said about 780,000 law enforcement officers are now serving in the United States. Over the past 10 years, he said, there have been 62,000 officers assaulted each year, 21,000 injured each year and 160 killed each year.

"The law enforcement officer's workplace is never safe," he said. "When you make a traffic stop you don't know. Is this driver reeling from being drunk or is he reaching for a gun under the seat? It takes a very special kind of person to be a law enforcement officer."

Lake said the law enforcement officer symbolizes courage, commitment and professionalism. They're "our forgotten heroes -- until there's trouble, and we dial 911."