LAND O'LAKES — The veterans sat in wheelchairs, wisps of gray poking out from ball caps commemorating World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam.
As cameras flashed and family members daubed tears, the men and women leaned forward one by one and Gov. Rick Scott draped medals around their necks.
The governor awarded the medals — called the Governor's Veterans Service Award — to 132 veterans, including staff, at the Baldomero Lopez State Veterans' Nursing Home on Thursday morning.
Accompanied by Al Carter, deputy executive director of the Department of Veterans' Affairs, the governor met with the veterans separately and thanked them. He spent about an hour at the care center.
"It was a very, very big surprise because I figure he doesn't have much time to spare," Angel Torres-Mendez, 84, a retired Green Beret who fought in Vietnam, said after the ceremony.
The event was part of a tribute to veterans statewide. Last month, Scott visited the Clyde E. Lassen State Veterans' Nursing Home in St. Augustine.
The elderly vets lined up in rows of wheelchairs at about 9 a.m. as the governor and other speakers, including state Sens. Wilton Simpson and John Legg, offered remarks from a podium.
"The freedoms and opportunities afforded by the American dream were paid for by the service and sacrifice of our brave veterans," Scott said. "That's why it's so important to honor and give thanks to our American veterans."
After the remarks, he walked down the rows, leaning toward the men and women — some in chairs but many in wheelchairs — to award the gold-colored medals tethered to red-and-white ribbons.
Many shook hands, smiled and thanked the governor. Some, stooped by age, could only shake his hand.
Loreen Quilligan of North Tampa said she attended the ceremony to watch her husband, Neil, 81, receive a medal. Suffering from Parkinson's disease, he entered the care center in March.
"It was very nice," she said. "It's nice to remember these men and what they did for us. So many of them have no one left now."
Rich Shopes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.