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At 96 years old, Ortega is a marvel of longevity. After a long career of military service that started in WWII he began a new career of volunteer service.

Richard Ortega had an eye exam recently. The doctor couldn't quite believe what he saw.

"Are you sure you're 97?" he asked.

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Ortega could only laugh. He won't turn 97 until Feb. 7, but he doesn't need glasses, his hearing is good, he still drives, and wherever he shows up there's a smile on his face.

All of which raises another question Ortega often hears — how does he do it?

What's the secret to a long, happy life?

"Helping people," Ortega said. "It affects your body. It gives me a good feeling."

Generations of good feelings is part of the reason why Ortega is a finalist for the Sentinel’s 2019 Central Floridian of the Year award. But he is not your traditional nominee.

Meet the Orlando Sentinel's 2019 Central Floridian of the Year finalists.

For one thing, Lt. Col. Richard A. Ortega never started a charity or legislated major reforms. He didn’t make a mountain of money and give it to worthy causes.

He's simply given of himself. Often in simple ways. Other times in ways few can comprehend.

"Each day his main goal is to serve others," Mayor Buddy Dyer said. "He's one of a kind in our community, and probably in our entire country."

Ortega exudes the humility and stoicism and can-do attitude associated with the Greatest Generation. He and his wife, Wynelle, live in the three-bedroom house they bought 50 years ago.

Central Floridian of the Year
Central Floridian of the Year

It stands out only because there's always an American flag on the pole out front. It's when you enter that you realize this is no ordinary homeowner.

The walls of Ortega’s office are covered with plaques and certificates. Dozens more are arranged in neat stacks on the floor. A closer look shows these are not bowling-league awards.

To start with, there are eight Purple Hearts, two Silver Stars and four Bronze Stars. France added its highest award, the Legion of Honor.

He’s like a living, breathing, saluting piece of history. So how did someone born in Cienfuegos, Cuba, in 1923 end up here?

Ortega read about America and wanted to be a part of it. He packed a bag and caught a boat to Miami.

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He was 15.

After three days on a Greyhound bus, Ortega arrived at New York’s Grand Central Station. He moved in with his cousins, worked in restaurants during the day and earned his high school diploma at night.

He was playing baseball in Central Park one Sunday when his aunt ran over with an announcement.

"We're at war," she said.

The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Ortega enlisted in the Army the next day. Three weeks later, he was headed to England aboard the Queen Mary.

He spent the next two years training to invade Europe. When D-Day arrived, Ortega's 29th Infantry Division led the assault on Omaha Beach.

Almost 3,000 Americans died on that strip of sand that day. The stories Ortega tells make the first 30 minutes of "Saving Private Ryan" seem tame.

"I am convinced we have a guardian angel," he said. "And my guardian angel really guided me all the way."

He had shrapnel wounds and was shot in the left foot, but the wounds were nothing a few stitches and some morphine couldn’t take care of.

He wasn't quite so lucky a month later. Ortega still doesn't know whether it was a sniper or shrapnel. Whatever it was, it blew a chunk out of his left thigh.

“Stick your finger in there,” he said, pointing underneath his pants leg. “There’s still a hole."

The British doctor wanted to amputate, but Ortega threatened to kill him.

"I woke up from the operation," he said, "and, by golly, I still had my leg."

There were more close calls. Like when he was a bombardier over Korea. Two crewmates died when their B-29 was hit by anti-aircraft fire, but the plane sputtered back to base.

Ortega later flew reconnaissance missions in the Vietnam War. He retired in 1970 and settled in Orlando.

He taught math and science at Colonial High and soon realized a lot of students lacked the traits he felt they needed to succeed. Things like self-reliance, physical fitness, citizenship, communication skills and patriotism.

The remedy would be Junior ROTC. Ortega started Central Florida’s first unit in 1970. Within five years, he began units at 18 other high schools, and eventually a Senior ROTC program at UCF.

That changed the lives of untold Central Florida teenagers, but it hardly covers Ortega’s community service.

He volunteered at the Human Crisis Council, a food pantry for the needy. Ortega was the guy who put on a suit, went to grocery stores and cajoled donations. Then he'd pick them up at 4 a.m. and deliver them to the warehouse.

"Everybody knew who the scrounger was," he said. "It was me."

When he wasn’t scrounging food, he was delivering it for Meals on Wheels. When he wasn’t doing that, he was going on search-and-rescue missions for the Civil Air Patrol when private planes went down.

When he wasn't doing that, he was helping veterans adjust to civilian life as part of the Mayor's Veterans Advisory Council. When he wasn't doing that, he was volunteering at Winter Park Christian Church.

He'd even preach when the minister couldn't make it.

"You give me subject and three minutes," Ortega said, "and I'll talk for a half-hour."

He was the head of Toastmasters International for the Pacific military theater. Dyer was so charmed by Ortega's spit-and-polish smoothness, he made Ortega his Protocol Officer. He's also designated Feb. 7 "Richard Ortega Day" in Orlando.

"No one knows more about the proper protocol for the U.S. flag than Richard," Dyer said. "He is one of a kind."

That's becoming truer every day. Of almost 75,000 U.S. servicemen who landed at D-Day, fewer than 1,000 are still alive.

Ortega continues to volunteer at church and works with the city, but he no longer flies rescue missions with the Civil Air Patrol.

"Because of my age," he said, "I'm considered a ground force troop now."

He still gets up at 6 a.m. every day and does 100 strokes on his rowing machine. Then he walks on a treadmill. That left leg can be a pain, but Ortega’s heart pumps blood that is red, white and blue.

"I felt I owed the country something. It didn't owe me," he said. "I'm very grateful I had to go to war. They banged up my leg, so what?"

He keeps a B-29 manual in his desk drawer and says he’s eager to return to active service if his country needs him.

So what if he's almost 97?

"I'm ready to go," Ortega said.

If nothing else, he could teach the troops the happiness secret he's spread around Central Florida for a half-century.

When you make life better for others, you make it better for yourself.

(This is one in a series of stories about the six finalists for the Orlando Sentinel’s Central Floridian of the Year award. The winner will be announced on Feb. 27.)

2019 Central Floridan of the Year finalist, Richard Ortega, at his home office in Winter Park. Ortega, age 96, came to the United States from Cuba in 1923, joined the Army in 1942 and two years later was running across the sands of Omaha Beach during D-Day. After his long career of military service, that included service during World War II, Korean War and Vietnam he began a new career of volunteer services for the Civil Air Patrol, Meals on Wheels and the city of Orlando.
2019 Central Floridan of the Year finalist, Richard Ortega, at his home office in Winter Park. Ortega, age 96, came to the United States from Cuba in 1923, joined the Army in 1942 and two years later was running across the sands of Omaha Beach during D-Day. After his long career of military service, that included service during World War II, Korean War and Vietnam he began a new career of volunteer services for the Civil Air Patrol, Meals on Wheels and the city of Orlando. (Rich Pope / Orlando Sentinel)
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