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Weeki Wachee receives Blue Star designation to start weekend for veterans

WEEKI WACHEE

Mary Hazen remembers seeing the Weeki Wachee Springs mermaids when she was a little girl. The St. Augustine native also recalls that attraction founder Newton Perry in 1947 helped train the Navy's underwater demolition team there.

Thus, the military owns a stake in the early history of the site, now a part of the Florida state park system.

Hazen, now a 60-something resident of Belle Chasse, La., and Louisiana chairlady of the Blue Star project for the National Council of State Garden Clubs, has long felt that Weeki Wachee's affiliation with the military should be honored.

On Friday, the recognition came to fruition with the unveiling of a Blue Star marker at the park, designating the site a Blue Star Memorial By-Way.

"(Hazen) really got the ball rolling," said Jill Anderson during remarks addressed to a gathering of about 100. Anderson, District VIII director of the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs, noted it is the first such memorial in Hernando County.

Hazen, who has brought her granddaughters to the park to attend mermaid camp for the past two summers, mentioned the springs' role with the Navy to park manager Toby Brewer. She suggested that the park needed Blue Star designation.

"Toby said, "Yes, we do. Get it done.' "

Hazen did, working with the Florida federation, which invited the Timber Pines Garden Club to come aboard.

From a program statement about Blue Star memorials, which began in 1945, Anderson read: "This nationwide living memorial projected a ribbon of dedicated highways across the country in every state with markers at appropriate locations. ... A blue star was chosen because it symbolized the blue star on the World War II service flag, which hung in so many homes of servicemen and women as a tribute."

In an aside, Anderson added: "We're so pleased it's in an area where people can see it; so many of them are along highways."

The plaque is set in a rough-quarried stone donated by the nearby Weeki Wachee Stone Yard.

Mermaid Shannon Tooker of Hudson, wearing a navy blue tail bearing white stars, unveiled the marker.

The 23-year-old mermaid is a boatswain's mate with the Coast Guard out of Clearwater. And Brewer, the park manager, is a volunteer recruiter for the Coast Guard.

The dedication ceremony also marked the official opening of the Formula H2O Underwater Scooter Racing Challenge, a joint undertaking of the Wounded Warriors Project supported by U.S. Special Operations Command. The challenge takes place this weekend at the springs.

Competitive races for veterans, using diving propulsion vehicles and hypobaric scuba apparatus, are scheduled from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Sunday in the park's underwater theater. Some 30 veterans from around the country are registered to race. More, along with their families, are being trained during the weekend event.

Training and practice sessions may be viewed intermittently today. In those activities, for wounded soldiers who have lost limbs, no pain is experienced, said David Sirak of Orlando, representing H2O and Wounded Warriors. The lack of pain lingers for a while, he said, and the supercharged oxygen promotes healing.

"We want to give new recreational activities to the wounded," Sirak said. "Being in the water unleashes a range of mobility they do not have on land."

Retired U.S. Special Operations Col. David MacDonald, who also represents the nonprofit Special Operations Bionic Warriors, was on hand to watch the program, which is being at Weeki Wachee for the second year. The bionic group aims to speed up access of recreational underwater gear for veterans.

Sammy Lugo of Riverview, who lost his lower left leg to a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2007, led a color guard from VFW Post 10209 of Spring Hill during Friday's dedication ceremony.

Beth Gray can be contacted at graybethn@earthlink.net.

Weeki Wachee receives Blue Star designation to start weekend for veterans 09/21/12 [Last modified: Friday, September 21, 2012 8:32pm]
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