BUSHNELL — Saint Leo University professor Frank Arnold brushed the dirt from his hands and the tears from his eyes as he tried to explain why he was laying mulch Wednesday at the Florida National Cemetery.
It was the school's annual fall community service day and Arnold could have been working with kids at the Boys and Girls Club or volunteering at the Humane Society.
Instead, he and about 15 students and professors were unloading mulch from the back of tractors and spreading it in planters throughout the veterans cemetery.
"These are my brothers and sisters," said the 70-year-old retired Air Force colonel, referring to the more than 100,000 buried under the cemetery's rows of gray, evenly spaced markers. "Until you put your life on the line with others, you can't appreciate that relationship."
"This was a way of paying back," said fellow professor and retired Air Force veteran Mike Moorman, 68.
The two men had nearly 50 years of military service between them, but there they were, raking mulch in a light drizzle on a holiday in their honor.
"You can never pay back enough," Moorman said.
Throughout the cemetery, about 30 university students participated in maintenance projects. Some laid mulch, others stained wooden bridges.
For a few hours, they nearly tripled the cemetery ground crew.
"It would take one employee a week to do this by himself," said Edward Brown, maintenance foreman. "It's saving us so much money and time."
The students, many in the school honors program, were respectful, he said. And open.
"You tell them they're on hallowed grounds. I think that wakes them up, especially on Veterans Day."
Earlier on Wednesday, the cemetery's 514 acres teemed with visitors as an estimated 2,500 came for its Veterans Day ceremony.
U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, who said her husband is interred there, spoke about the importance of honoring the sacrifice of veterans.
The Hernando High School band played Taps in the rain.
The sky cleared just in time for the singing of God Bless The USA. Those who could rose from their metal chairs, strollers and wheelchairs to hold hands and sing along.
During the benediction, chaplain Harold Marcou of the Florida National Cemetery Joint Veterans Committee told crowd members he loved them all.
"Your family is resting here, that makes you a part of my family," Marcou said.
The crowd dispersed to visit the graves of friends and family after the ceremony. The cemetery was mostly cleared by the time the Saint Leo University students arrived.
Still, sophomore Grant Posner, 19, said it felt good to know that his efforts would be noticed the next time those loved ones came to visit.
"We want to make an impact on the veterans and their families," he said.
Kathleen Carr, 18, a freshman whose great grandparents are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, summed up many of her peers' sentiments.
"It just feels right," she said.
Helen Anne Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 435-7312.