ST. PETERSBURG — Jim Epting bowed his head as the first wailing notes of taps from a lone trumpeter's horn echoed across the shaded courtyard.
The retired Air Force lieutenant colonel has heard the solemn song at countless military funerals over the years. It sounded particularly haunting on this particular Sunday — Veterans Day.
"My service ended 25 years ago, but it all comes back when you come to honor those who served," said Epting, 67, of Seminole.
"When you hear taps, it's over, it's done. That was the feeling today for many people," he said. "There are a lot of us who didn't make it back, so … there's an emptiness and a sadness and a real greatness for all we've got today."
Epting was among hundreds of veterans, their families and community members who gathered at the Bay Pines VA Medical Center to pay tribute to the nation's millions of past, current and future service members, as well as to prisoners of war and those missing in action.
The ceremony included speeches, music and a re-enactment honoring Vietnam era veterans, capped by a 21-gun salute.
"They did not serve and protect our great nation for public recognition and fanfare" but for freedom, said Bay Pines director Suzanne Klinker. "Their quiet sacrifice and commitment deserve our respect."
The Bay Pines celebration was one of dozens of ceremonies sprinkled across the state.
The James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa will hold a parade at 10 a.m. today.
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Other ceremonies Sunday included those at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell and at Tampa's Veterans Memorial Park, which drew about 250.
As they waved American flags, the Tampa crowd — some in wheelchairs, some in uniform and some pushing strollers — watched drill demonstrations by Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps students and applauded as several members of the community were awarded for work they do for veterans.
"We have to come out today," said Cyd Deathe, whose son served as a Marine in Iraq. "If you can get 70,000 or 80,000 people out to a football game, then we can get out here to remember why they can go to a football game in the first place."
At Bay Pines, the keynote speaker, Marine Cpl. Michael Jernigan, told attendees how it was the support of a loving community that helped him battle back to recovery after he was blinded in 2004 by a roadside bomb.
But he quickly shifted focus to the sacrifice of the thousands others sleeping in holes, squinting against driving sand and dodging bullets and death.
"There was lots of talk this election about the 1 percent," said Jernigan, 34, of St. Petersburg. "The 1 percent of the nation's population that serves in active duty — that is our true 1 percent right now."
He added: "There's a lot of pain, but there's a lot of love. We do this for the love of our country. We love freedom. We love liberty. We love America."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected]