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Tears mark Memorial Day ceremonies

The sounds of taps and rifle fire rang out in remembrance Monday across the Tampa Bay area as people honored the men and women who served in the nation's military. Some paid tribute to family members. Moms wiped away tears as they sat before their sons' graves. Older veterans, long since returned from decades-old wars, remembered their fallen friends and comrades. Still others who had no direct connection — no deployments of their own or departed family members — paused for a moment to say "thank you." Amid intermittent rain showers, people passed on trips to the beach and holiday sales to gather and commemorate those who served and died for this country.

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TAMPA — It didn't matter that they were on vacation and didn't know anyone buried in the American Legion Cemetery in Tampa.

Fort Wayne, Ind., residents Kristin and Chris Acosta, both 29, took time from their vacation — their last before Chris deploys in August for his second tour with the Army — to honor their friends, family and all those who served to protect this county.

"Going to the beach today wasn't important," Kristin said. "Being a military wife, it's easy to appreciate this day. Especially for the husbands who don't come home," she added, wiping away tears.

The Indiana couple joined several hundred others for the American Legion U.S.S. Tampa Post 5's 90th Memorial Day Service.

Speakers included Tampa City Council member Charlie Miranda and radio personality Jack Harris. Flags were arranged before each grave, and the ceremony included the placement of honorary wreaths.

Vietnam veteran Mike Switzer, 68, attended with his wife, Sheila, 64. Switzer served in the Army and still carries a ball bearing embedded in his left hand — a constant reminder of the time he served and the explosion that wounded him and several others three days before he was scheduled to return to the states.

"The older we get, the harder we try to take time and remember," Sheila Switzer said. "Now we're starting to see that we need to keep supporting the younger generation."

Caitlin Johnston, Times staff writer

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ST. PETERSBURG — Holding back tears, Diana Niquette said she was most moved when she heard the veterans fire their rifles three times over the cemetery.

"I feel a connection with every person here," she said, before going to visit the grave of her stepfather, who served in the Army.

Niquette, 43, of St. Petersburg was one of about 3,000 people who attended the Memorial Day ceremony at Bay Pines National Cemetery. The ceremony is the largest in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

More than 150 Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts placed flags Saturday on the cemetery's 31,733 graves.

The speakers included Bay Pines VA Healthcare System director Suzanne Klinker, Bay Pines National Cemetery assistant director Maurice Roan and U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young.

"We want to do exactly what Bill Young said and keep the spirit of Memorial Day alive," said Leslie Jernigan, who attended the ceremony with her husband, Michael, 33. He served in the Marines and has been blind since he was wounded in Iraq.

Alli Langley, Times staff writer

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BUSHNELL — As it rained over Florida National Cemetery, Megan Buskey Gamelin, 51, set up flowers, incense and a lawn chair in front of her son's grave.

Her son, Pfc. Robert Buskey, "was my best friend and only son," Buskey Gamelin said between tears. "Not a day went by that I didn't get a call from him."

Buskey Gamelin sat alone, but around her hundreds of people gathered for the cemetery's Memorial Day ceremony despite intermittent rain. In attendance was Gov. Rick Scott, who served on active duty in the Navy as a radarman.

Not far from Buskey Gamelin, Rose Waruinge, 52, of Tampa also visited her son's grave. Serving in the military was a dream for Cpl. Kevin Waruinge, 22, even before their family relocated from Kenya to the United States in 1997, she said.

"We remember him every day, but today is a special occasion to remember him and pay tribute to our veterans," Rose Waruinge said.

Laura Herrera, Times staff writer

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PALM HARBOR — At Curlew Hills Memory Gardens, retired Army Capt. Gregory Amira told of his burial beneath rubble during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center.

At the time, he was a highly paid vice president at Morgan Stanley's headquarters, with an office on the 73rd floor of Tower 2. Amira was trapped twice under the rubble while helping others escape.

Five years later, the University of South Florida graduate and Army reservist was still in therapy for panic attacks when he was told he would need to deploy to Iraq.

There, he embarked on more than 150 combat patrols and helped rescue survivors of a convoy bombing that left him with serious internal injuries, including damage to his brain.

Now living in Trinity, Amira, 42, runs the Wounded Vets Association and WoundedVets.org, a nonprofit group raising money for veterans severely wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq. On Monday, the group sponsored the giving of a new truck to Justin Gaertner, a young Marine from Trinity who lost his legs in Afghanistan.

"There's no, 'All I did was,' " Amira said. "Every single job in the military is important. … Continue to pay it forward to the coming generations, so they don't forget, and so they realize how important every one of them is out there."

Drew Harwell, Times staff writer

Tears mark Memorial Day ceremonies 05/28/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 29, 2012 12:51am]

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