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Inaugural Freedom Fest will celebrate veterans’ service

By Phyllis Day
LUIS SANTANA | Times Brian Anderson, the founder and CEO of Veterans Alternative, came up with the idea for the inaugural Veterans Day Freedom Fest, which will take place on Friday and Saturday at Sims Park in New Port Richey.

NEW PORT RICHEY ó It started with a boxing match two years ago.

Brian Anderson, a combat veteran, was always a fan of boxing. He said that while serving with the Armyís 82nd Airborne Division, the men enjoyed putting on gloves and sparring. He said boxing is also big at the military academies. So what better way to honor fellow veterans than with a Veterans Day Boxing Throw-Down, which was a hit during its first year at Sims Park in 2015.

But this year, the founder and CEO of Veterans Alternative decided Pasco County deserved something more.

"We wanted to take it up a notch," Anderson said.

To celebrate Veterans Day this weekend, Veterans Alternative is hosting the inaugural Veterans Day Freedom Fest on Friday and Saturday at Sims Park.

There will be live entertainment, food and beer sales, patriotic arts and crafts, resources for veterans, a kids zone and other activities.

Fridayís festivities will include a Freedom Fighters Feast for invited veterans and dignitaries. Flamenco dancers will entertain, and there will be a concert with country music singer and former Army Ranger Keni Thomas, which the public can view on a large screen.

And, of course, there will be the Smack-Down, which is open to the public.

"We have veterans, Golden Gloves champs, military champs and some of the top amateurs in the nation participating," Anderson said. "It is just an amazing crew of folks. ... Itís a good, fun event."

Saturdayís festivities will include a Veterans Day parade, which will start at 3 p.m. at the intersection of Gulf Drive and Grand Boulevard. It will head north on Grand, go around Orange Lane and end on Bank Street.

There will be more than 50 entries, with floats representing each generation of warriors, from World War II through the present. The parade will also include a flyover with fighter jets and a 1944 C-47 plane that was used to drop paratroopers in Normandy on D-Day, courtesy of Turin Aviation Group.

"Every part of this celebration is so cool," Anderson said. "But this part is extraordinary. The flyover will be right over the parade. Itís going to be amazing. ... That is the icing."

The event was made possible through the efforts of about 90 volunteers, headed by Andersonís wife, Amy. Although Anderson had the vision, he credits his wife with tying everything together to make the two-day event possible.

"She made it happen, he said. "Amy is amazing. ... She took it on and just ran with it."

Anderson stressed the importance of having celebrations to honor the nationís veterans. In Pasco County alone, there are about 54,000 veterans, with 35,000 of them living within a 10-mile radius of New Port Richey, Anderson said.

"A lot of people get confused about Veterans Day. Itís not a memorial service," Anderson said. "Itís a celebration of those who served honorably and selflessly. ... It is important to tell the story of veterans through our event. We want to recognize them and let them know what an asset they are to the community. ... I want to make sure we have big celebrations. Our warriors deserve it."