Fallen heroes honored at park

Published May 28, 2007

TAMPA - Veterans with medals, stories and gray hair sat in silence Sunday as the slow, somber sound of Amazing Grace emerged from a veteran's bagpipe, filling Veterans Memorial park.

Ian White, 11, was walking out of the park's museum when he heard the music. He stopped in his tracks, looked ahead and held his hand up in salute.

Ian's dad isn't in the military. He didn't know any fallen heroes. But observing Memorial Day still is a two-day tradition for the Valrico family.

Dad Mike White thinks it's important for Ian's generation to understand Memorial Day "to give them some history, so that they're aware of sacrifices made by generations."

Dozens of kids were among about 300 people who attended the Veterans' Council of Hillsborough County's 11th Memorial Day ceremony on Sunday. They ate hot dogs and drank lemonade, and said they understood that today would be more than just a day off school.

To Courtney Clem, 17, and her brother Thomas, 14, it's personal.

All their lives, the Lithia teenagers have heard the story of their uncle, Thomas Clem, whose Marine Corps jet was shot down over North Vietnam just before his 26th birthday, before he got the chance to marry his sweetheart.

Decades have passed, but their grandmother is still too distraught to talk about their Uncle Thomas.

Every year, their grandfather receives a card from the White House commemorating Thomas' death, and he sneaks his grandchildren into another room to show it to them.

Courtney and Thomas decided early on they needed to tell the world about their uncle.

Courtney entered the Tropicana Speech Competition when she was in the fifth grade, and won first place in her district with an essay titled Grandpa Whispers, about the impact of her uncle's death on her grandparents.

Thomas still scans the Web for information about his uncle.

"I think with the war right now, especially the youth, people don't really pay attention, " Courtney said.

"They're caught up in other things, " her brother chimed in, "music and pop stars."

Courtney said that during World War II, people on the home front pitched in, conserving resources and supporting troops.

"What's the nation going to be if we don't have patriotic kids?" she asked.

Dolly Reynolds doesn't worry about her 6-year-old son, Joshua. Joshua never met his grandfather, who died when his mother was just a baby.

But out of the blue one day a couple of years ago, at a Target near the MacDill Air Force Base, Joshua walked up to a soldier and told him, "Thank you for protecting our country."

"It made the soldier tear up, and it made me tear up, " said Reynolds, 28.

Now, Joshua does it any time he sees someone in a military or law enforcement uniform. It kept him very busy Sunday.

On the other side of the park, Brett Warnick wore his grandfather's camouflage Army hat from Vietnam as he scanned a plaque commemorating sunken U.S. submarines.

The 9-year-old from Plant City has been watching the History Channel since he was 3. His favorite movies include Saving Private Ryan and Flags of Our Fathers.

"I want to be a Marine, " Brett says. "They raised the flag in Iwo Jima."

His mother, Heather Warnick, said it's a little scary to think about her son wanting to become a Marine.

"But when I think about the kind of person I'd like him to become - the discipline, the integrity, the self-confidence, the spirit of giving back, " Warnick said, "it's worth it."

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at 813 226-3354 or azayas@sptimes.com.