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Uniting to share 'a spirit that glows'

Solidarity reigned at Bay Pines and across the area as all ages gathered to remember those who have fought for our freedom.

By CARRIE JOHNSON
Published May 27, 2003

[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
Harold Macking, 73, of St. Petersburg stands during the playing of taps at the service at the VA National Cemetery on Monday. Macking served during the Korean War. "It means a lot," Macking said about Memorial Day and the service. "But it's recognition that is sadly being forgotten."
photo
[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
Virginia Wingler, 46, puts her chin on the shoulder of her sister, Maggie Herring, 48, during the Memorial Day service at the VA National Cemetery at Bay Pines. Monday was the first Memorial Day they have been together since their father died 23 years ago.
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ST. PETERSBURG - George Kehoe walked slowly from grave marker to grave marker, silently reading the names of fallen comrades.

"They're losing about a thousand of us World War II veterans a day now," said Kehoe, 79, who once jumped out of airplanes over Germany with the Army's 17th Airborne Division. "There aren't going to be very many left soon."

Each Memorial Day, Kehoe, a retired St. Petersburg lawyer, attends the observance at the VA Medical Center at Bay Pines to see old friends and rekindle old memories. But this year, with images of young men parachuting into Iraq fresh in his mind, the event took on a special significance.

"Those boys are doing some good work over there," Kehoe said proudly.

There was plenty of flag-waving patriotism Monday as veterans of all ages gathered at the perimeter of the VA National Cemetery to honor the men and women who gave their lives while serving their country.

But the recent war in Iraq and the more than 160 soldiers killed in the conflict lent an air of somberness to this year's event, which featured U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young as the keynote speaker.

Young has spent hours visiting with the wounded at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. He said he has been struck by how young the soldiers appear as they return home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"But there's a spirit that glows within these kids and that is that they love their country," Young said.

While praising their bravery, the congressman also expressed concern that the soldiers have not yet seen the end of Saddam Hussein's army. "I fear they have just melded into the population and will cause trouble for us whenever they can."

The Bay Pines ceremony was one of many in the Tampa Bay area and throughout Florida.

In Largo, nearly 200 gathered alongside Wilcox Road to watch Pinellas County's only Memorial Day parade.

"It makes you stop and think and appreciate what they (U.S. military) have done for us, " said Virginia Pena of Largo, turning back to watch the parade.

In North Pinellas, about 180 people attended a Memorial Day celebration at Curlew Hills Memory Gardens. They listened as Brian M. Lisko recounted how his B-52 bomber roared through the skies above northern Iraq during the Persian Gulf War as anti-aircraft artillery exploded nearby and surface-to-air missiles were launched.

Lisko, who was the pilot, and his crew found the courage by remembering their friends who were killed during the war. "I told the guys, "Let's not let them die in vain'," he said. "So we pressed on."

At Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell, thousands gathered under the shade of the trees for the annual Memorial Day service and ceremony. Some were wearing military uniforms; others wore patriotic T-shirts and sat in canvas chairs embossed with American flags.

At Bay Pines, the crowd watched silently as Young gave his speech on a tree-shaded platform. A few people waved small American flags. There were high school students in ROTC fatigues, young men in military dress uniforms and older veterans in their American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars regalia.

A brass band played the Battle Hymn of the Republic and the Air Force Song as the crowd clapped and cheered. A few people rose to their feet to salute.

David Miller, president of the Pinellas County Veterans Liaison Council, talked about what it meant to be an American. He warned the country's enemies that they face a formidable adversary.

"You can try to kill an American if you must," Miller said. "Hitler tried, as did Tojo ... But they lost because Americans are not a particular people. They are a human spirit."

Watching from the front row was William Pechacek, 63, a former Navy SEAL. He was wounded so badly by a round from a 75-millimeter gun during a skirmish outside Saigon that a chaplain administered last rites three times.

Pechacek, a St. Petersburg resident, said he was glued to the television during the war with Iraq. He said he felt protective of the young soldiers charging into battle.

"I wanted to help them all," Pechacek said. "I wanted them to know what I know."

As the ceremony drew to a close and the mournful sound of taps reverberated across the neatly manicured cemetery, silent tears slid down Maggie Herring's cheeks. Her sister, Virginia Wingler, clutched her shoulder.

The St. Petersburg siblings hail from a military background. Their father served in the Army and a brother was in the Air Force. Herring also spent two years in the Army.

Memorial Day has always been a special day for the family, but job obligations have kept the sisters apart since their father died 23 years ago of natural causes.

"It's just so nice that we're finally able to spend this day together," said Herring, 48, wiping her eyes. "I know that my dad knows that we're here and knows that we love him."

- Times staff writers Phyllis Day, Angie Green and Ed Quioco contributed to this report. Carrie Johnson can be reached at (727) 892-2293 or cjohnson@sptimes.com

[Last modified May 27, 2003, 08:11:36]


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