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Remembering our nation's fallen heroes

More than 1,000 veterans, relatives and others filled Florida National Cemetery for an hourlong service.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 30, 2000


BUSHNELL -- Marie A. VanLandschoot of Floral City never missed a parade as a little girl.

Her father, a World War I veteran, would don his uniform, grab his
photo
[Times photo: Kevin White]
Margaret Kruger of Tampa visits the grave of her husband, Kermit Kruger Jr., at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell on Monday.
family and head for the festivities, said VanLandschoot, former president of WAVES National in Spring Hill and the unit founder in Citrus County. Any chance to honor the U.S. flag.

So it seemed only natural for VanLandschoot to build tanks for General Dynamics and then join the Women's Auxiliary Volunteer Emergency Services, where she repaired fighter planes and bombers during World War II. And it seemed equally logical for VanLandschoot and her husband, Robert, also a Navy veteran, to come out Monday to remember soldiers who died for their country.

"You get backbone in the Navy," she said, "and your friends are your friends forever."

More than 1,000 veterans, family members and friends from all over the Tampa Bay area filled Florida National Cemetery on Monday for an hourlong Memorial Day service. They came in uniform and red, white and blue garb, many carrying bouquets to place on grave sites.

They listened with hushed reverence to the prayers, songs and speeches offered during the event. They saluted the flag, flinched at the gun salute that shook the sky andwept at the dual-bugle presentation of taps.

"I just like remembering some people who I knew that were in the service and died," said Monica Hastings, 14, gunnery sergeant for Young Marines of Hernando County. "It just gets me thinking."

Dressed in summer camouflage fatigues, Hastings and her troop took turns carrying a flag during the event.

"Tears were in my eyes" during taps, she said afterward. "It's really an emotional day to me. I know people who don't even care. I tell them, "You can have what you want but, without (soldiers), then you wouldn't have what you have today.' "

Lt. Col. Robin Higgins, executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs, had a similar message as guest speaker.

"It is right that we pause to remember them and, in remembering, recognize their sacrifice," Higgins said.

Many children never have known war, she said, and they view Memorial Day as nothing more than a day off from school or a special sale at the mall. The soldiers would not mind spending the weekend with family, enjoying a picnic or the beach, either, she said.

But they also would want citizens to remember the point of the holiday, established in 1868 to recognize Union war dead. Soldiers and the families that miss them deserve honor, Higgins said.

"All those who died, died as heroes," she said. "All those who served their country have earned the gratitude and respect of their country."

James Tobin, president of the U.S. Submarine Veterans of WWII -- Weeki Wachee chapter, praised Higgins' sentiments.

"If it wasn't for us guys, you'd all be speaking Japanese," Tobin said.

He and others from the chapter come to the cemetery twice a year to visit the graves of friends and to participate in ceremonies. They said the turnout improves each Memorial Day.

Dan R. Mason of Citrus Hills spent seven years as a Marine during the Korean War. He said he was lucky enough not to lose colleagues during the war, but he takes the time each year to pay tribute to the people who "really made this country what it is."

He came to Florida National Cemetery for the first time this year.

"I wanted to see how many people are still patriotic," Mason said. "There aren't too many of them. There aren't enough of them."

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