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Tampa Bay area pauses to honor veterans

At Tampa's James A. Haley VA Medical Center, they watched from wheelchairs and vintage cars.

They handed beads to children, and they stroked the hands of brain trauma patients.

They were as old as Evelyn Johnson, a World War II veteran who will turn 90 in January, and as young as Cohen Stead, 6 months old, whose father was shot in the head in Afghanistan.

Politicians and nurses, retired volunteers and fresh-faced high school band members, they came with a single purpose.

"I come here today to honor the veterans," said Luis Vega, 33, of Ruskin, "and to spend time with my brothers."

Communities throughout the Tampa Bay area observed Veterans Day on Wednesday with ceremonies that combined patriotic cheer with solemn recognition of the pain and sacrifice.

Hundreds attended the second annual parade at the Haley VA Medical Center.

U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, one of nearly a dozen elected officials, told the crowd, "you know that freedom is not free. … Today is for you. Every day, we remember you."

Next to the podium, under a protective canopy, a dozen patients sat in wheelchairs, tended by nurses and relatives.

"This is what it's all about, to honor those who serve us, and to do it where the war veterans are," said Dr. Steven Scott, who heads the polytrauma unit where many of the men are receiving care.

"The key here is community involvement," Scott said. "Look around you. You see young kids, older World War II veterans, families, a little bit of everything."

Adam Stead, 29, sat with his wife, Carrie, while Carrie's parents took care of their infant son. Injured two months ago, Stead arrived at the Haley VA Medical Center after a month in Bethesda, Md.

"They do a great job here," Carrie said. Her father, Vietnam veteran Danny Hope, agreed. "I can't be more appreciative for what they have done for Adam," he said.

Watching from across the parade route was Bob Silah, another Vietnam vet who runs the local support group, Operation Helping Hand. Among its activities, the organization sponsors monthly dinners for VA patients and their families.

"So many veterans, especially from Vietnam, never got this type of recognition," Silah said. "Unfortunately, we keep seeing more wounded and injured."

Near the front of the crowd was Vega, who is on 100 percent disability since his truck hit an explosive device three years ago in Iraq. A father of four, he is almost always in pain, he said, and makes regular trips to the VA for treatment.

"I just want to get better, but it's hard," said Vega, who sustained a concussion and hearing loss, plus injuries to his back, knee and shoulder.

"We're not going to quit," Scott said. "For the rest of their lives, it's our obligation back to them."

Bushnell

Natividad Kennedy was among the estimated 2,500 in Bushnell to attend Veterans Day ceremonies at Florida National Cemetery.

Kennedy, 66, came from Orlando to see her husband, Gerald, an Air Force veteran who was buried here in February 2008. She placed a bouquet of mixed flowers on his grave.

"It hurts, but it's nice to be here," Kennedy said. Then she shared that each time she visits the cemetery, the number of graves increases. "It's sad."

The crowd at Bushnell included all ages, some in wheelchairs, some in strollers. They carried sepia-toned photos of family members.

"This is the day when we need to give thanks to those who really sacrificed so much," said U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville. The congresswoman's husband is also buried here.

A light drizzle fell after her speech, and strangers shared their umbrellas and then, as if scripted, the sun reappeared for the singing of God Bless the USA. The crowd held hands.

St. Petersburg

Hundreds of people began gathering at Bay Pines VA Medical Center early Wednesday, looking to honor the area's veterans on Veterans Day. Many came dressed in uniforms and suits.

Just before the 10 a.m. ceremony, St. Petersburg Mayor-elect Bill Foster arrived, eager to be a part of the crowd.

"I'm grateful for every one (of the veterans), and I wouldn't miss it for anything," Foster said.

Keynote speaker state Rep. H. William Heller, D-St. Petersburg, who served in the Army in the 1950s, addressed the veterans and said his father always made his family celebrate three holidays: Memorial Day, Independence Day and Veterans Day.

"My uniform is one of the most cherished items in my closet, and it will always be so," he said. "Yes, freedom is definitely not free, and no group has ever known this fact more than our veterans."

Keswick Christian School Wind Ensemble and Choir performed at the event, and there was a firing detail and a wreath presentation. Bay Pines estimated 1,200 people showed up for the event.

Sun City Center

About 300 people — mostly veterans — gathered in the town's community center to listen to a Special Operations Command worker and retired Marine Capt. James W. Cluck.

"As I look around the room there are a lot of folks that may not have been in the service recently," Cluck said to the residents of retirement community, who laughed.

Cluck compared the veterans from earlier wars to the soldiers serving in the war now, and assured the men and women they were in good hands.

"They stand ready to do the job," Cluck said. "Days like today give us the opportunity to thank them."

In Pasco County, the St. Jude's Homeless Veterans Resource Center will have a celebration from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Rotary Concourse Pavilion, 15323 State Road 52, in Land O'Lakes.

Tampa Bay area pauses to honor veterans 11/11/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 11, 2009 3:50pm]

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