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Tragedies color tribute to veterans

An hour and a half into the Veterans Day ceremony Monday at the VA Medical Center at Bay Pines, director Thomas H. Weaver cut in to announce the crash of an airplane in New York.

He was talking about American Airlines Flight 587, which crashed Monday morning into the Queens, N.Y., area shortly after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport.

"At this point, we don't know whether it is a terrorist act or not," Weaver said.

His comments drew gasps from some of the nearly 2,000 veterans, family members and others assembled behind the medical center's nursing unit. Others were visibly shaken.

VA volunteer Pat Drucker shuddered.

"I'm very shook up because I have some family members in that area. It's very suspicious, but we shouldn't jump to conclusions," she said.

Drucker, of St. Petersburg, said she was there to honor her "significant other," Jim Farcas, a member of the Pinellas County Veterans Liaison Council honor guard.

"Also, I'm honoring both of my (deceased) husbands. One was a Marine and one was in the Air Force," she said. "They're both buried in veterans' cemeteries."

Monday's event began with a parade of veterans from World War I (Alfred Pugh, 106, and Frankie Demeise, 104, both participated) through the Gulf War. There also were some veterans dressed in uniforms of the Revolutionary War and the Spanish-American War.

Members of area high school ROTC units marched behind older veterans walking with canes or being pushed in wheelchairs.

"These kids look so young, but they are the ones who will be defending us some day," Drucker said.

Prayers, speeches and tributes commenced shortly after the 20 or so units in the parade posted their colors.

At one point in his welcoming speech, Weaver said: "This Veterans Day has special meaning, especially after what happened on Sept. 11.

"They (terrorists) have attacked our nation and our families. Now they are paying the price. They will not prevail."

His words were greeted with thunderous applause.

Likewise, the audience warmed to the remarks of retired Marine Corps. Brig. Gen. Thomas Draude.

Draude, who saw three tours of duty in Vietnam and served in the Gulf War, dedicated his speech to all veterans, particularly Vietnam Veterans.

"A lot of you look pretty fit," Draude said. "Well, perhaps a haircut here and there and you'd be ready for active duty."

People laughed at that.

Draude continued: "One of my proudest achievements is to say I'm a veteran of Vietnam. And to every Vietnam veteran, I say, your contribution was directly involved in the success of Desert Storm. We learned valuable lessons from Vietnam, and it prepared us for Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

"I know you didn't want to acknowledge Vietnam because of the antagonism and bad reception when you got home," he said. "But now it's time to share your stories with your family . . . and others. Don't wait until it's too late."

Another emotional high came at the end of the ceremony when Rick Wise, a singer and songwriter, and others on the podium invited the audience to sing Lee Greenwood's God Bless the USA.

People were on their feet, with their hands outstretched. Some even reached across the aisles to show their unity and resolve.

"This has been an emotional year," said Vietnam veteran Dwight Harrah, 53, of St. Petersburg. "I'm here to give thanks, mostly. I got to thinking about my little trials and tribulations, and then Sept. 11 happened.

"I felt violated . . . personally violated."