SEMINOLE - Once a year, on Memorial Day, Woodrow Dimonda dons his khaki dress uniform and pins to his lapel the Bronze Star he was awarded during World War II for disarming a bomb on a bridge in Austria.
The wool jacket and trousers are hot and itchy, especially on a steamy Florida morning. But Dimonda, 86, said Monday it is his way of paying tribute to the friends he lost while serving in the Army.
"We were like brothers," he said, his eyes filling with tears. "I lived with them, you know?"
Dimonda joined hundreds of other veterans and their families at Bay Pines National Cemetery, one of many Memorial Day ceremonies in the Tampa Bay area.
At Bay Pines, spectators gathered Monday morning under the cemetery's massive live oaks. There were teenagers in ROTC uniforms and veterans in wheelchairs, some carrying oxygen canisters. Those not in uniform wore red, white and blue or waved tiny American flags.
U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Rocks Beach, the keynote speaker, said the crowd was one of the largest he had seen for the annual event. Organizers attributed the increased attendance to the fighting in Iraq. Young praised the soldiers for continuing the battle against terrorism.
"Today, the enemy has no boundaries," Young said. "These people do not play by any constitution. They don't play by any rules except what suits their fancy."
David Miller, the president of the Pinellas County Veterans Liaison Council, said he was pleased to see a strong show of support for the troops. A Vietnam veteran, Miller said he did not get a warm reception when he returned from war.
"It's a bad feeling," he said, "when you come home and people spit on you."
For Harold F. "Sarge" Cook, Memorial Day is one of the highlights of the year. He has been a resident of Bay Pines Medical Center since 1962, when he was discharged from the Army on a medical disability after serving in both World War II and Korea.
Cook, 84, a survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor, was greeted warmly by dozens of friends and well-wishers after the ceremony. But it was the comrades he had lost who were on his mind.
"Most of the men from my unit ended up there," Cook said, gesturing toward Bay Pines Cemetery. "And I remember each and every one of them."