How we honor our heroes

Troops just home from World War I march in downtown Sarasota. Photos courtesy of the Sarasota County History Center

Memorial Day. A day to buy a blood-red poppy to put in your lapel. A day to visit a cemetery and plant a small American flag. A day to put your hand over your heart when Old Glory marches by. A day we almost lost.

“In the 1920s and ’30s, it was a big deal,” said Sonny Bywaters. Old photographs show the returned World War I vets taking the turn around Five Points and heading for the bayfront in memory of the doughboys who didn’t come back from “over there.”

“But basically it fell down, and the city decided not to have it at all,” said Bywaters of the effort to hold a Memorial Day observance. “So the vets started marching again.”

In the mid-1980s, a coalition emerged to bring the Memorial Day Parade and Observance back to life. A Vietnam vet with shrapnel in his skull named Dan Kunkel worked with Bywaters’ long-time affiliation with veterans clubs to bring people from city and county government aboard to keep the event alive. They formed the Sarasota Patriotic Observance Committee, and the rest – as they say – is history.

Spanish interlude

On assignment in Franco Spain decades ago, I walked through a Barcelona neighborhood and kept seeing an unusual sight. It was a disabled beggar on the sidewalk. One tin cup held loose cigarettes. Another cup was his cashbox.

People would pass by, put bills in the cashbox cup but not take a cigarette. After the third or fourth time, I asked who these men were. “Veterans of the civil war,” I was told. “Republican veterans.”

Generalissimo Francisco Franco led the fascist side to victory in the late 1930s. And in victory, he denied any benefits to those who had fought against him. Veterans of the fascist side would enjoy huge preferences in employment, rehabilitation and retirement. Republican veterans would get nothing.

‘Vet Central’

Jerry Derrick is the point man for veteran’s affairs in Sarasota County. After a career in the Veterans Administration, 10 years ago he joined the county’s veterans’ services office at the Health Department on School Avenue and Ringling Boulevard.

How many veterans are here? “The VA estimates it’s about 48,000. A couple of years ago it was 52,000. So we figure 50,000 is a fair number,” said Derrick. “We do know there are 415,000 vets within a 75-mile radius, because there was a survey before the founding of the Sarasota National Cemetery. “

Because spouses and children and other survivors of veterans are eligible for some level of benefits, Derrick estimated about one-third of Sarasota’s population can be linked to the Veterans Administration, whether the people know it or not.

But the demographics skew heavily to higher ranks. “There are a lot more officers than enlisted,” he said. “Maybe more retired flag officers here than anywhere.”

Only generals and admirals get a flag.

Helping the living

Memorial Day is about the dead. The killed in action, the killed in accidents, the uniformed dead in times of peace and war. The ceremony in downtown Sarasota at the conclusion of the parade – where the prayers and speeches are delivered – is wrapped around the statue of the American Doughboy.

No, not the Pillsbury doughboy. It’s the American doughboy who went off to Europe in 1917 to fight in the “War To End All Wars.” The bronze statue is a common one; similar ones are found in towns and cities across America. It’s a design by E.M. Viquesney to honor the men who didn’t make it back home.

Below Sarasota’s doughboy statue is a list in bronze of the sons of a pioneer community who stayed in France forever. Getting wounded in the trenches was lethal. Today every effort is made to save men and women in the services. Some still die, but more are returning home.

Some are physically disabled, missing limbs or near deaf from shell and shot. Some suffer emotional trauma, a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It used to be called “shell shock,” or other names. About a quarter of today’s veterans live with it, suffer from it, have their lives rearranged by it.

“The latest research shows it is a normal reaction to that kind of stress,” said Derrick.

Take your average Boy Scout on a tour of dismembered bodies, bodies he helped dismember with machine-gun fire and artillery strikes. And then ask him to do this year after year. Today’s Reserve and National Guard units rotate time after time into the war zones, into “the sandbox.” Three tours; four tours; when does anyone succumb?

Jimmy Signore is doing his part to help. He’s founder of KARA Cruise nights, a classic car rendezvous that meets on the second and fourth Saturday nights of the month at the Taco Bell near Clark and Beneva Roads. “We’re looking for a way to help,” he said. “Instead of trophies, we should put our money towards the troops and kids needing organ transplants.”

Signore and KARA are working with the Wounded Warrior Project to aid disabled veterans. “It’s tough right now in this financial environment, but we need to help, because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “Drop by. Help us out.”

Russian interlude

On assignment again, this time in Moscow. The wall is down, Russians are so desperate they’re growing vegetables on their rooftops. Corporate execs will talk to anybody who might help them market their Soviet-era accomplishments.

I arrived in February – no rooftop vegetables – as one of the first Western reporters to talk to the men who designed and built Soviet combat submarines. At the time, and maybe still today, those submarines held the record for speed and depth. Real accomplishments in a cold, hard and cruel sea.

On my way to catch a subway train, I rushed by – and then backtracked to see – another legless guy, this time with a blanket in front of him and a display of medals. Reading ribbons is an important skill for a military correspondent. And this guy wasn’t really selling an authentic Order of Lenin at a subway stop.

But the idea of a beggar trading on ribbons – capitalizing on the schadenfraude of a disabled vet with gongs to sell – struck home. And, no, I didn’t buy.

Order of march

Thirty years after the War to End All Wars, the veterans are home again, marching around Five Points, leaving a new generation to rest overseas, gone but not forgotten.

“It kinda hurts to see an American flag go down the street and people not take their hats off, not put their hands over the hearts,” said Bywaters. “The veterans are walking to remind people of those who did not make it back.”

More than the veterans are walking. Thirty local organizations, maybe more, will line up and walk down Main Street starting at 10 a.m. on May 28: High school bands such as those from Booker, Sarasota and Riverview; and veterans from the VFW, the Disabled American Veterans and American Legion will walk. The list goes on. Liberty Baptist Church, the Knights of Columbus, the Moose, the Jacobite Pipe and Drum Band, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the Red Cross, the Sahib Temple, Pearl Harbor Survivors, ex-POWs and more and more.

The entire Sarasota Military Academy student body, plus parents, is expected to parade. And so is the Haynes City Elementary Drum Corps, fifth- and six-graders delighted to make beautiful noise.

To say nothing of the police, the sheriff, the local elected dignitaries, all glad to be seen. To say nothing of the people who will gather along Main Street, to doff their hats and remember all those who aren’t coming back, including Chief Petty Officer Brian Bill.

Bill’s father, Scott, will be the featured speaker this year at the ceremony. Brian Bill was a member of SEAL Team Six, the guys who got Osama Bin Laden. Brian died when a rocket-propelled grenade destroyed a CH-47 Chinook helicopter his team was aboard. Brian held four Bronze Stars for Valor when his bird went down Aug. 6, 2011.

This is why we have a Memorial Day. When a bugle in the clear air of a new summer day brings tears to our eyes with “Taps.” For Brian, and the blue and the grey, for the doughboys, and the dogfaces and the grunts and the murdered Peace Corps volunteers and Foreign Service Officers and everybody else who was killed in service to our country.

The bugle is their cry. On this one day, we listen.

This article  is reprinted from the May issue of Siesta Sand, a monthly visitors’ guide to Siesta Key.