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Vet helped get Orlando's VA Medical Center dies at 87

After leaping from a plane over northern France in June 1944, Bill Coleman spent almost a year as a prisoner of war during World War II.

He went without food or water for days. In 1945, he and other prisoners were forced to collect the charred bodies after the Allies firebombed Dresden. Coleman told the Sentinel in 2009 that he didn't expect to survive the war.

'We were sure we would be executed," the U.S. Army veteran said.

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Those "traumatic experiences" stayed with Coleman, said his wife, Toni, shaping his passion for veterans' care later in life. Coleman was a vocal advocate for the new Orlando VA Medical Center taking shape at Lake Nona and expected to open 2013.

"He made this [the VA hospital] his priority," said U.S. Rep. John Mica, who knew Coleman for 40 years.

Coleman of Orlando died Thursday of complications from pulmonary fibrosis. He was 87.

A recipient of two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart, Coleman returned to Orlando after World War II and began a career in public service.

He was a Republican state legislator in the late 1950s, Florida's first secretary of transportation and a member of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority. He also ran for Congress and Orange County clerk of court.

In 1989, then-President George H.W. Bush appointed Coleman commissioner of the Public Building Service, an agency that oversees the work space for more than 1 million government employees.

"He was a political animal," said his son Kevin Coleman.

Born in Tennessee, Coleman spent time in Orlando as a boy, often visiting his grandparents who lived near the Lancaster Park neighborhood. The day he graduated from military school, Coleman enlisted in the U.S. Army and trained at Fort Benning in Georgia. He was a member of the 101st Airborne Division.

Fifty years after he made his first jump over Normandy, Coleman did it again in 1994, joining 40 veterans who parachuted into France as a way to commemorate the invasion. He jumped out of a plane again at age 80 on the 60th anniversary of D-Day.

Five years later, Coleman returned to France and received that nation's highest military award, the medal of the Legion of Honor.

Meanwhile back home, Coleman dedicated much of his time to veterans. He was a member of the Central Florida Veterans Memorial Park Foundation and sat on the Florida Commission of Veterans Affairs.

As a former POW and survivor of World War II, Coleman understood the need for proper medical care — both physical and mental — for returning veterans. The Orlando VA Medical Center will be his lasting legacy, his son said.

"He understood what they went through and knew that Orlando could get a better system for treatment," his son Kevin said. "He built a lot of political and civic capital here in Orlando all his life. And I think he wanted to cash all that in one more time for a cause he believed in."

Leading up to the medical center's groundbreaking in 2008, Coleman attended public meetings and forums, spoke to civic groups and worked with politicians to secure funding and land for the facility.

"He's been the glue that held it all together," Mica said. "He just never let up."

Besides his son and wife, Coleman is survived by his son Billy Coleman of Orlando and daughter Kimberly Moore of Fort Collins, Colo.; 11 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

Carey Hand Colonial Funeral Home, Orlando, is handling arrangements.

jbusdeker@tribune.com or 407-420-6226

 

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