Villagers deserve praise for honoring fallen vets with American flags at National Cemetery

If you want to see a group of patriots who truly understand the meaning of Memorial Day and freedom, then we’d suggest a visit to the Florida National Cemetery on Sunday.

Flags adorn grave markers at Florida National Cemetery last May after four busloads of Villagers came out to pay their respects.
Villagers Marguerite Desbrow and Donna Swiderski, both of the Village of Duval.

If you make that trip to Bushnell, you’re going to find thousands of people – many from The Villages – who are putting flags on the graves of American servicemen who are buried at the facility as part of the Flags For Fallen Vets effort. Each grave at the cemetery is marked with a white marble headstone. And it’s very special, emotional and invigorating all at once to see the vivid red, white and blue colors of the American flags that are posted in front of the thousands upon thousands of stark white grave markers at the national cemetery.

This year, many Villagers are going by bus to the National Cemetery, located at 6502 SW 102nd Ave. in Bushnell. As she has done in the past, Villager Marguerite Desbrow has largely organized that effort and will be busy Sunday morning paying respects to those she never knew but has huge respect for.

It will, no doubt, be an emotional day for Desbrow because she’ll be thinking about her late son, Sgt. Michael Robert Desbrow, a 20-year Air Force veteran buried at Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas. The Village of Duval resident won’t be at her son’s gravesite on this Memorial Day weekend, but you can bet everybody on those buses will be supporting Desbrow – a huge military advocate who’s involved with Villagers for Veterans and Villages Honor Flight, among other groups – as she places the flags one by one and quietly thanks each military member for their service.

“I love my vets and this is just a special way to honor them,” Desbrow said last year. “I’m so glad that so many people came out, because what would we do without our vets?”

Last year, Villager Rick Gish also was quite proud to plant flags and honor those who served their country with honor. In fact, as Gish made his way down a row of gravestones with flags in hand, the 20-year Navy veteran paid the ultimate respect to each by coming to attention and offering a long salute.

Navy veteran Rick Gish, of the Village of Hillsborough, offers a long salute as a tribute to a serviceman buried at Florida National Cemetery.

Seeing Gish show the true respect he has for his fellow service members clearly summed up the meaning of Memorial Day as thousands of others also paid their respects at the cemetery – despite the threat of heavy rain and occasional downpours from a tropical storm.

“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 country in the Flags For Fallen Vets effort, said the United States wouldn’t be what it is today without the efforts of every man and woman 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.

Villagers representing Operation Shoebox, Villages Honor Flight and Villagers for Veterans place flags on the graves of military service members at Florida National Cemetery last May as part of the Flags for Fallen Vets effort.

It also was an emotional day for 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.”

Polly Thompson, of the Village of Glenbrook, pays her respects to a fallen soldier last May.

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.”

Polly Thompson, whose family boasts a rich history with the Marine Corps and Air Force, said it’s quite important for every American to take a moment and 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.”

Eileen Doherty, of the Village of St. James, places a flag at a gravestone.

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?”

Scrib Kelly, of The Villages Chapter of Sons of the American Revolution, places a flag on a grave in Section 402 of the Florida National Cemetery last May.

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.”

As we said earlier, we truly appreciate everyone who will be spending time at the Florida National Cemetery on Sunday morning placing flags on graves. We have no doubt that those many veterans will be looking down from above and will truly appreciate the recognition they so richly deserve. And we will reiterate that we all must understand and appreciate what this country would be like if those veterans and their families didn’t make huge sacrifices to protect the freedoms we all cherish but often take for granted.

Villagers wave American flags and sing patriotic songs on the way home from Florida National Cemetery on Memorial Day Weekend last May.