Villager Rick Gish knelt down and carefully placed an American flag in front of a white marble gravestone.
Seconds later, he stepped back and quietly thanked the soldier buried there for his service and sacrifice. Then the 20-year Navy veteran paid the ultimate respect by coming to attention and offering a long salute.
It was a moment that clearly summed up the meaning of Memorial Day as thousands of others joined Gish in paying their respects at Florida National Cemetery early Sunday morning.
“I’m just honoring my fellow vets,” said Gish, one of about 200 Villagers who made the trip to the cemetery aboard four buses.
The Village of Hillsborough resident, who joined thousands across the county taking part in the Flags For Fallen Vets effort, said this country wouldn’t be what it is today without the efforts of every man and women who have worn military uniforms.
“Thank them from the bottom of your heart every day for their sacrifice, so you can do what you want to do,” he said.
Villager Marguerite Desbrow also was busy Sunday morning placing flags at gravestones in section 501 of the cemetery. The leader of Villagers for Veterans, who had put together two busloads of people coming to pay their respects, was thinking about her son, Sgt. Michael Robert Desbrow, a 20-year Air Force veteran buried at Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas.
“I couldn’t be there to give him a flag, so I said, ‘Let’s get together and do flags for the Bushnell cemetery,’” said the Village of Duval resident who also spends her time volunteering with Villages Honor Flight and Operation Shoebox. “I love my vets and this is just a special way to honor them. I’m so glad that so many people came out, because what would we do without our vets?”
A forecast calling for heavy rain from Tropical Storm Alberto, no doubt, kept some people away from the cemetery. But it didn’t stop Desbrow’s best friend, Donna Swiderski, who arrived early to place a flag on her husband Donald’s grave.
“He was in the Air Force for 20 years as part of the B-58 (bomber) program,” said Swiderski, also of the Village of Duval. “He was very proud of his service and I know he’d be proud to be here in this national cemetery.”
For Rita Steiner, of the Village of Sanibel, placing flags made her think about family members and friends who served their country in different branches of the military. And a gravestone of an Army soldier who served in the 101st Airborne Division particularly struck a chord.
“My husband was in the 101st,” she said. “He was a crazy paratrooper and he would have been over the moon about this.”
Lori Landon, of Abingdon, Ill., quickly teared up when she thought about the meaning of Sunday morning’s trip.
“We need to thank everyone for everything they’ve done,” said Landon, who was visiting her sister, Barbara Empson, of Wildwood. “They paid a great price.”
Polly Thompson, whose family boasts a rich history with the Marine Corps and Air Force, said we all need to take a moment to show veterans how important they are.
“What they did for us gave us what we have today,” said the Village of Glenbrook resident. “We have to thank them and show that we care, that we appreciate it.”
Thompson added that it’s important to always remember the many sacrifices veterans have made.
“It made us what we are,” she said. “It’s made us as strong as we are and we thank them.”
Villages Honor Flight volunteer Jeff Taffuri said it was important to pay respect to veterans of all eras. But he made it a point to address those like his brother, Carmine, who served in the Vietnam War.
“The majority of them were very disrespected, when all they did was do their duty,” he said. “Whatever your feeling might be about what went on then, it has nothing to with somebody serving their country.”
Taffuri added that he can’t imagine what the world would be like today without the sacrifices so many veterans have made over the years.
“These are the people that gave us the freedom and the rights that we have and protected them,” he said. “Let’s say the World War II vets didn’t do what they did. Where would the world be and where would this country be?”
Desbrow agreed. “Oh dear God, we don’t even want to think that way,” she said. “We’d be speaking another language. But thank you Jesus, that’s not happening.”
Meanwhile, members of The Villages Chapter of Sons of the American Revolution were busy Sunday morning placing flags in section 402 of the cemetery, which contains about 1,000 graves.
Chapter members who participated and those who will remove flags on June 2 included Dave Bussone, Dan Hungerford, Bill Dyer, Scrib Kelly, Bob Jackson, Glen Moyer, Smoke Hickman, Dan Byers, Pete Jacobsen, Richard Parks and Chris Hermann.
The Villages Chapter of Sons of the American Revolution meets at 10 a.m. the second Saturday of each month at Captiva Recreation Center.
Florida National Cemetery is located at 6502 SW 102nd Ave. in Bushnell. It encompasses 512.9 acres, contains 129,000 graves and is one of the largest national cemeteries in the United States.
The cemetery features a Memorial Pathway that is lined with a variety of memorials honoring America’s veterans. As of April, there were 51 such memorials, with most of them commemorating soldiers and veterans of 20th-century conflicts.
Three Medal of Honor recipients are buried at Florida National Cemetery. They are:
• Master Chief Hospital Corpsman William R. Charette, Navy, for action with the Marine Corps in the Korean War.
• Master Sgt. James R. Hendrix, Army, for action with the 4th Armored Division at the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.
• Sgt. Maj. Franklin D. Miller, Army Special Forces, for action in the Vietnam War.