Late Army Spc. Zack Shannon loved the simple things in life: Beer. Plates piled high with food. Raunchy country songs. Telling jokes so he could see other people smile.
And so his loved ones decided to celebrate him in death Sunday as he had lived.
Hundreds of people who piled into VFW Post 2550 for a memorial marking Shannon's death March 11 in a helicopter crash near Kandahar, Afghanistan, were asked to relish the music, refreshments and laughter.
"Zack would want you to enjoy this day in his honor," said longtime family friend Miles Springer, 47, of Palm Harbor. Within the first hour, organizers estimated 500 people streamed into the VFW to remember 21-year-old Shannon, who was one of five U.S. soldiers who died in the unexplained crash.
Even had the Dunedin native believed the nine-month Afghanistan tour he volunteered for in December would lead to his death, loved ones believe he would have gone anyway. Among the 200 photos displayed in a slide show at the memorial was one of a roughly 5-year-old Shannon, who knew from childhood that he wanted to follow in his military family's footsteps, sitting in a Black Hawk chopper.
"He was where he wanted to be, doing what he loved," stepfather Chip Allison said.
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In addition to friends and relatives, the memorial drew elected leaders, veterans and community members.
Robert Carson, a Canadian Navy veteran who winters in Clearwater, stumbled upon the gathering while picking up a Toronto Blue Jays schedule at the stadium across the street.
"He was protecting his country and the freedom we take for granted here. I really honor the men and women who've passed away," said Carson, 79.
Gina Gattuso, 45, of Clearwater of Semper Fi Sisters, a military support group, said memorials become a "way of life" for military parents.
"It's always in the back of your mind that this could happen and you pray it doesn't happen to you. Your heart goes out to the mothers. I feel like it's my child because when you're a military mom, they're all your children and we support each other," said Gattuso, whose son is deployed to Japan.
Deb Karnes, 56, said she rode her bike from Palm Harbor, where she lives, to show her respect and pride. She plans to stand on the roadside waving a flag during today's motorcade.
"All he wanted to do was serve his country," she said. "It's a sad day, but it's nice to be among throngs of hundreds. It's strength in numbers. It makes you feel happy."
Tears welled in Karnes' eyes as two bagpipers — who had kicked off the service by leading a procession from the parking lot into the VFW past saluting Patriot Guard members — played Amazing Grace.
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In another emotional display, family friend Jeff Roxby unveiled a mahogany Black Hawk replica helicopter engraved with Shannon's name, company and a quote from his Facebook page: "I decided to join the Army instead of go to college but this makes me part of a proud few that stand alone. I'm a Black Hawk mechanic and love my job."
Shannon's brothers, stepfather and mother plan honor him with matching tattoos — an aviation helmet atop a rifle in a pair of combat boots and dog tags.
Dunedin High School senior Nick Surratt says he is happy to have known his older former schoolmate.
"There's not enough you can do to remember him," said Surratt, 18. "He'll be alive as long as we keep him in our memories."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected]