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IT STILL FLIES FOR FREEDOM

An American flag display is unveiled at Tampa International Airport.

A sheet of fabric coated in colors. Few things amount to so little, but mean so much. Saluted in moments of pride, lowered in times of sorrow, pledged to with hands on hearts: the American flag.

As the Fourth of July approaches, thousands will be waved along parade routes, hung from homes and emblazoned on T-shirts.

Each one, a patriot might hope, will mean a little something to its bearer.

For the dozens of former and soon-to-be Marines who dedicated a massive set of stars and stripes Thursday morning at Tampa International Airport, the flag had its own value: a reason why they fought and fight, and a reminder of why their fallen gave their lives.

The flag was set up in the main terminal, in a place seen by thousands daily. It was encased in glass, and beyond its inscription - "Honoring those who have and are serving our freedom" - the flag itself has been through the ritual of loss and honor.

It was first hoisted in the airport terminal after Sept. 11, 2001.

The JROTC students from Clearwater High School who formed part of the color guard in the ceremony Thursday were still in elementary school when the terrorists struck.

Now dressed in uniform and at attention, they say gravitas of that moment was not lost.

"It lets people know what we can do, that we care," senior Rebekka Huneke, 17, said of why she chose to join the JROTC. She said she plans on joining the Marines when she graduates next year.

And for the most senior former Marines who gathered from around the state at the airport, the flag's latest journey pulled them back to a war nearly a lifetime ago.

In March, Frank Correa and John Piazza, top officials with Largo's Marine Corps League, traveled to Iwo Jima - the tiny Japanese island that played host to the bloodiest American battle since Gettysburg.

In a backpack that never left Correa's side on the 18,000-mile round trip, was the flag, folded, and awaiting perhaps its final flight.

Correa said he trudged up the beaches of volcanic ash, envisioning the nearly 7,000 Americans who died capturing the island.

"How these guys were able to advance under enemy fire here was truly amazing," Correa said.

He then climbed to the summit of Mount Suribachi, the site of the famous photograph by Joe Rosenthal of Marines raising an American flag.

In the warm wind of the South Pacific, Correa in turn raised the red, white and blue over the mountain.

Why go to the trouble?

"So that future generations may know the sacrifices made by those who have fought for our freedom," Correa said.

Correa, who works at the airport, got the go-ahead to take the flag from Tampa to the Pacific from John Wheat, the airport's interim executive director.

Piazza, who founded the Armed Forces Military Museum in Largo, donated the $5,000 for the flag's enclosure.

John Residence, 84, was an 18-year-old artilleryman when he landed on Iwo Jima 65 years ago.

He helped pull the unveiling sheet off the flag Thursday.

Afterward, he said his memories from the war were still loud as a Howitzer blast.

"We fought hard for our country," Residence said.

For Piazza, a retired Marine, his battle now is for a different cause - the preservation of memory.

"One of my missions is to educate our younger generations," Piazza said. "So many youngsters just don't know what's happened in our history, why it's important."

Dominick Tao can be reached at dtao@sptimes.com or (727) 580-2951.

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