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May 21, 2007

Old Soldiers Don't Fade Away

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

George W. Owings, III, was relieved of his duties as the Secretary of the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs by Gov. Martin O'Malley on May 7. Secretary Owings was not dismissed for any reason other than he had been appointed by former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr.

Secretary Owings had become legend in his politically shortened four-year tenure. Veterans across Maryland fell in love with the cigarette-smoking, motorcycle-riding, straight-talking Southern Maryland Democrat.

That's right; Secretary Owings is a Democrat, the party of Governor O'Malley. His party affiliation clearly mattered not to Governor Ehrlich, who was looking for a soldier's soldier to lead state's veterans' outreach. In George Owings, Bob Ehrlich found the perfect guy!

Prior to his appointment, Secretary Owings served as a delegate representing Calvert County. He didn't just serve in the House, though. He became an integral part of the institution, breathing in the atmosphere of legislating much like a vintner does a fine wine.

First elected in 1988, George Owings set the standard for future legislators, from his chummy camaraderie with his colleagues to his laser-like attention to the needs of his constituents. Rising quickly through the rank-and-file of the House, he rose to one of the ultimate power positions, that of Majority Whip, in 1994.

Normally reserved for someone who toes the party line, the Whip is the heavy, the muscle for the majority party. George's ascension to Whip coincided with the tenure of Speaker Casper Taylor, and George was the perfect foil for Cas.

Both were a little more conservative than most House Democrats, and George could work both sides of the aisle carrying Speaker Taylor's message. George also possessed a sharp wit and a gift for gab, both important when arguing a bill on the floor. Some of the best floor speeches I've heard during my five years in Annapolis came from George Owings.

Lesser debaters learned the hard way if they opted to confront George on the floor, but he always handled those confrontations with a smile and a handshake after the microphones were turned off.

So, why did such a skilled legislator leave a politically safe power position in the state legislature for a small state agency not known as a great retirement job? George loves one thing more than the institution of the House of Delegates. He loves the men and women who serve in our nation's Armed Forces, and he holds former service members in a special heart spot.

George Owings subscribes to a code instilled in him as a Marine, having served on active duty in the Corps from 1964-1968. To suggest that he was shaped in battle is an understatement. Sgt. Owings received the Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Unit Commendation with Bronze Star Device, Navy-Marine Corps Medal, and the Vietnam Service Medal with Silver Star Device for his service to our nation.

This Devil Dog saw the sacrifice of his fellow soldiers in the rice paddies of Vietnam. He also saw the resentment and anger directed at him and his compatriots upon their return to U.S. soil. That lesson would serve him in his role as the head of the state Department of Veterans Affairs, especially when it came to welcoming our returning heroes from the War on Terror.

I watched George Owings as he interacted with our brave veterans and was very fortunate to welcome him to Brunswick to serve as the keynote speaker at our annual Veterans Day celebration while he was secretary. When WWII and Vietnam Veterans passed by, the tears in George's eyes were a reflection of the pain and the respect he felt for them. I will never forget that day.

George embraced his role with gusto and passion. The hallways at the Charlotte Hall Veterans Home were filled with his warmth; he loved visiting with the old soldiers. His speeches at veteran's events and memorials rang with the eloquence of his days in the legislature, and were tinged with poetry and passion.

Finally, Secretary George Owings honored Maryland soldiers who returned from the Iraq and Afghan operating theaters. He loved to shake hands with these brave young people, but his most loving touch was reserved for families whose sons and daughters gave the last full measure of their devotion to a grateful state and nation.

I've been wondering about where Governor O'Malley intends to take our state over the next few years. The decision to replace George Owings gives me pause, and suggests that the future may not be quite as rosy as first thought.

George, I'm honored to know a man of your caliber. Thank you for your honorable service, in all of its forms. I am forever grateful that I can call you my friend. Semper Fi!

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