DUNEDIN — When the helicopters began buzzing overhead, Pam Ricco managed to choke back tears as she urged her 9-year-old twin girls to hold their homemade tribute sign higher.
However, at the first notes of the bagpipes interspersed with the rumble of motorcycles, the dam broke.
The 49-year-old Dunedin woman had never met the man inside the passing hearse, but she quietly wept for the late Army Spc. Zack Shannon's family.
"I can't even imagine what they're going through," Ricco said of the families. "We need to support the troops. We need to support the families."
Shannon, a 21-year-old Black Hawk helicopter mechanic from Dunedin, was among five U.S. soldiers who died in a March 11 helicopter crash near Kandahar, Afghanistan. His body arrived at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa on Monday morning and was escorted across Tampa Bay, through Clearwater and his hometown of Dunedin and to Curlew Hills Memory Gardens in Palm Harbor.
Hundreds lined the streets to watch the procession of police and sheriff's deputy cruisers, Patriot Guard motorcycles, an ivory hearse and Escalade limo.
A hush fell over the crowd of about 200 outside Tampa City Hall as the motorcade approached. Office workers put hands over hearts, and uniformed Tampa police officers raised their arms in salute as the hearse rounded the corner.
Jennifer Jeffrey, 48, wiped her eyes as she walked back to work, a small American flag in hand.
"He's our son — America's son," she said. "Twenty-one is too young."
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In Dunedin, among those lining Pinehurst Road to watch the motorcade were neighbors, Shannon's former Dunedin High classmates and JROTC members, fellow Boy Scouts and friends as well as city commissioners, law enforcement, veterans, military families and others who braved high winds to pay their respects.
"I come from a long line of military," said Anona Johnson, 32, of Seminole. "I would hope that they would do it for my brother, so I do it for them as a thank-you. That's the least I can do is wave a flag."
Said Bill Coppla, 51, a former Air Force ammo trooper from Dunedin: "I'm a veteran. He's a brother."
Though Dunedin High sophomore Jonathan Gibbs had never met Shannon, he readily gave up a few hours of his spring break vacation to accompany two of Shannon's acquaintances who perched American flags in the grass.
"I feel like if somebody risked their life for our freedom, the least we can do is take the time to show our respect," the 15-year-old said.
Kathy Ramsey's sons went to Dunedin High, so the tragedy hit "close to home." Wearing American flag-inspired clothing from head to toe, the self-proclaimed "military girl" explained how her father spent 20 years as an Army major. The family, she said, "hold(s) our breath" each time her nephew, a helicopter pilot, ships off to Afghanistan.
"I would hug them," Ramsey, 61, said of Shannon's parents, "and say thank you for their son's sacrifice."
Shannon's family will hold a private funeral Wednesday, followed by burial at Dunedin Cemetery.
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Dunedin High senior Nick Surratt, who was a classmate of Shannon's, was among JROTC members who stood at attention outside the school Monday and saluted as the hearse passed.
Surratt has friends in the service and knows death is a part of military life. Yet facing the flag-covered pine box carrying his friend's body was harder than the 18-year-old had anticipated. Surratt had considered Shannon, a jokester who loved to make others happy, a mentor.
"He came home but he didn't come home in the fashion that we hoped," Surratt said. "It's a realization moment that you need to live your life to the fullest."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected].com.