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Thousands gather for Memorial Day service at Florida National Cemetery

BUSHNELL

Every weekend, Susan Guttke drives from Tampa to visit her daughter's grave at Florida National Cemetery.

Guttke, 61, remembers the phone call she received a few days after Christmas in 2005 — her 30-year-old daughter Dana Guttke, who'd been training for a year in Oklahoma to be a mechanic with the Navy, was sick.

"I'm hurting," Dana told her mother.

By the time Guttke made the drive to Oklahoma, Dana had slipped into a coma. She died on Jan. 4, 2006. The cause of death was unknown; Dana had caught a strange bug that was in the air at the base, Susan said.

Guttke sat by her daughter's headstone with flowers on Monday as a panel of speakers and performers celebrated Memorial Day. She was part of a crowd of about 3,000 people who attended an event that's been held each year since the cemetery was established in 1988, said Kurt Rotar, the cemetery's director.

"My favorite thing is seeing the young people that are here and the camaraderie of the veterans," Rotar said.

For about an hour, those in attendance were serenaded by the likes of Linda Burnette, who sang Gone But Not Forgotten, and listened to keynote speaker Mike Prendergast, a retired Army colonel and the executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs.

George Samuelsen, 88, of Spring Hill sang along with the Hernando High School band as the group played a patriotic medley.

A retired Army private first class, Samuelsen remembered serving during World War II.

"God was with us," Samuelsen said.

He traveled to England, France, Germany and Belgium and fought in the legendary Battle of the Bulge, he said.

"He's still alive! Talk about living history," Prendergast said upon meeting Samuelsen after the ceremony.

The 5-acre cemetery was covered with lawn chairs and blankets for the ceremony. Large families brought coolers and staked out swaths of grass. Veterans wore their uniforms.

Jack Williams, 59, of Winter Haven donned his Navy hat. A chief machinist's mate when he retired from the Navy in 1994, Williams watched his son, Christian Williams, enlist in the Marines Corps and become a sergeant.

Christian was killed in Iraq on July 29, 2006, when a suicide bomber drove a propane truck rigged with howitzer shells into his checkpoint. He was 27 years old.

Marines officers came to Williams' door with the news of Christian's death.

"When we saw them, we knew what it was," he said. "My heart broke."

Alison Barnwell can be reached at abarnwell@tampabay.com or (352) 754-6114.

Thousands gather for Memorial Day service at Florida National Cemetery 05/27/13 [Last modified: Monday, May 27, 2013 10:57pm]
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