Villagers come together to pay respects to fallen veterans at Florida National Cemetery

Villager Marguerite Desbrow teared up early Sunday morning as she thanked a large group of Villagers for making the trip to Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell to place American flags on veterans’ graves.

Residents came from throughout Central Florida – many of them from The Villages and the local area – on Sunday morning to place American flags beside the white marble tombstones at the Florida National Cemetery.

“It’s everything to me,” the Village of Duval resident said of the effort, Flags for Fallen Vets, that brought thousands of people from across the Sunshine State to the cemetery.

Desbrow said her late son, 20-year Air Force veteran Sgt. Michael Desbrow, was on her mind as she placed flags on graves. He is buried at Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas.

“It’s been a very special day,” she said. “I do this in his memory and name.”

Navy veteran Hector Bueno, of the Village of Bonnybrook, served as a captain on one of the buses Desbrow acquired to transport Villagers to the cemetery. He said it was an emotional trip but one that was an absolute honor.

“You go down there and see these guys who have fallen to keep us free and alive and safe,” he said. “Not all of them died in battle, but all of them certainly helped to make that happen.”

American flags were placed throughout the Florida National Cemetery on Sunday to honor the thousands of veterans who have been laid to rest there.

Arlene Clarke, a 22-year Air Force veteran who lives in the Village of Osceola Hills, said she felt the same way.

“It was an honor taking the group that I had down and placing the flags and remembering all of the people that have died for our freedom,” she said. “It meant a lot.”

Army veteran James Curley, of Water Oak, paid his respects to veterans interred at the Florida National Cemetery during a Flags For Fallen Vets event on Sunday.

James Curley, of Water Oak, said it’s important to understand the commitment each of those veterans who are buried at the cemetery made to their country.

“They didn’t try to go away to Canada or some other country to hide,” said the proud member of American Legion Post 347.

Left: Villagers Melinda Thompson, Marguerite Desbrow and Donna Swiderski. Right: Bus captain Jeff Taffuri, of the Village of Hemingway.

Curley added that he has immense respect for one group of veterans, many of whom are buried at the cemetery.

“If it wasn’t for most of these World War II veterans here, we would be speaking Japanese or German,” said the Army veteran, who in the early 1970s intercepted enemy Morse Code messages. “That means a lot to me to be an American. And it meant a lot to me when I enlisted, that these people went ahead of me.”

Villagers worked as teams on Sunday at Florida National Cemetery while honoring veterans by placing flags on their graves.

Honor Flight volunteer Jeff Taffuri, a bus captain from the Village of Hemingway, said his thoughts were with his late brother-in-law, Lewis Burgess, who fought in the Vietnam War and died as a result of being exposed to Agent Orange.

“He’s interred up in New York, so I put a flag down for him today and he knows that,” Taffuri said.

Villagers pick up their bundles of flags to place on graves at the Florida National Cemetery.

Villager Debbie Winters, who helped get Villages Honor Flight started and has been on 19 trips to Washington, D.C. with veterans, said she appreciates the fact that so many people came out to the cemetery on Sunday.

“It’s just so amazing how you can spend one hour out of your day and come out here and make a difference,” she said. “The cemetery is beautiful now because of everybody just giving one hour. The difference it makes is phenomenal.”

Residents from throughout Central Florida came to the Florida National Cemetery on Sunday morning to pay their respects to the veterans laid to rest there.

Winters said her thoughts were with her 83-year-old father who served in the Navy and made 14 trips to Vietnam during the war, transporting troops and bringing home those who gave their lives in combat.

“When you look at these graves, you think of the sacrifices of everybody,” she said. “Not only the people that have passed but their families. Being a military brat, I totally understand the commitment when a family member is in the service.”

Panoramic views of the Florida National Cemetery on Sunday morning.

Winters said she appreciates that fact that someday someone will honor her father on Memorial Day Weekend.

“That’s very, very important,” she said. “The military has always been very important to me. It’s part of who I am and who our family is. So I always want to give back.”

Several members of Jeep clubs also took part in Sunday’s flag event. Air Force veteran Joshua Thompson, a member of both the Rum Runners Jeep Club of Orlando and the Tampa Jeep Krewe, said it was a day that had been on the calendars of he and his fellow club members for quite some time.

“It’s a big honor to be out here to support not only loved ones but the ones who have passed that have served the country and stood before me and some after me,” the former military police officer said.

Air Force veteran Joshua Thompson and his fellow members of the Rum Runners Jeep Club of Orlando and the Tampa Jeep Krewe came out to place flags and honor veterans buried at Florida National Cemetery.

For two Villagers, the day hit particularly close to home, as they have family members buried at the cemetery.

“It always blesses me to be able to do something like that,” said Melinda Thompson, of the Village of Largo, as she remembered her brother-in-law, Navy veteran Richard Martin. “I’m just so thankful.”

Donna Swiderski agreed, as her thoughts centered on her husband Donald, an Air Force veteran laid to rest at the cemetery.

“It meant a lot for me to go out there today and see so many people laying the flags,” she said quietly. “It’s just very touching.”

Villagers head back to Florida’s Friendliest Hometown aboard the Honor Flight bus on Sunday after placing American flags on graves at the Florida National Cemetery.

Meanwhile, members of the John Bartram Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution gathered after placing flags at the cemetery. That had met early Sunday morning at the Eisenhower Recreation Center and car-pooled to the cemetery. Working in the hot son, they and their spouses covered their assigned area and thanked each veteran for his or her service after placing flags in front of the tombstones.

Like many of the Villagers who participated in the bus trips Desbrow put together, the DAR members will return to the cemetery on Saturday, June 1 to remove the flags and carefully wrap them so they can be used next year as well.