DUNEDIN — After retired Army Sgt. Maj. Billy Waugh received his first Purple Heart, the wounded serviceman was told he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Seven more Purple Hearts later, the 82-year-old Lutz man said Tuesday, his commanding officers realized that might not be the case.
"People finally realize this guy is not gonna quit. And that's the way it was," Waugh said, eliciting laughter from the 150 to 200 people gathered at Purple Heart Park to pay tribute to local men and women who have been wounded or killed while serving in the U.S. armed forces.
Then, turning serious, Waugh — who served 24 years in the Army, 30 years in the CIA and penned a memoir describing his role in the capture of terrorist Carlos the Jackal and surveillance of Osama bin Laden — reminded spectators why they were there.
"I remember so many good stories," Waugh said before turning to the American flag behind him: "That's my heart. That's why I do what I do."
Tuesday's ceremony marked the fifth for Dunedin, the country's first Purple Heart City. The park, at the entrance to downtown, has benches and bricks dedicated to local veterans.
"Of all the things we do in Dunedin, I think I'm most proud that we honor our veterans each day of the year," said Mayor Dave Eggers. "Those are true heroes and people we need to connect with to remember what this country is all about."
The event was at times solemn, with onlookers standing silently during a 21-gun salute, a trumpet rendition of Taps and a bagpipe performance of Amazing Grace.
Waugh's keynote address took on the air of a pep rally that honored service members past and present. Rejecting the offer of a microphone, Waugh led several chants, including one in which spectators, waving American flags and raising their fists high, shouted after him: "USA!"
Waugh, who still travels the country instructing troops, says his adventures took him to 64 countries. Seven of his Purple Heart medals stem from service in Vietnam. One is from Korea.
Organizers say turnout at this year's Purple Heart ceremony was triple that of last year. In addition to service members and elected officials from Clearwater and Seminole, the ceremony drew relatives of deceased Purple Heart recipients.
Palm Harbor resident Lou Greber's family said they wanted to honor the World War II veteran, who died one month ago today.
"Before he passed away, he asked us to come to this," expecting that he'd be making an appearance too, said his granddaughter, Krista Reifschneider, 41, of Valrico. "So we made sure to come anyway in support of him and the Purple Heart."
They want his memoir, published by his family and presented to him as a surprise on his 90th birthday in February, included in a veteran history project being organized by the Library of Congress and members of Congress, including Rep. C.W. Bill Young. The compilation will include videos and printed materials.
"It's truly comforting to know that our neighbors back home care about what we're doing overseas," said Jake Gauthier, a 23-year-old ex-Marine, Purple Heart recipient and Young staffer who attended on Young's behalf.
"Support alone for servicemen means a lot," said Gauthier, a Gibbs High graduate who returned in December from Afghanistan with his twin brother, who also was wounded. "And to know that a whole city is a Purple Heart City means a lot."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.