Third annual event remembers U.S. forces
The words ‘thank you’ were a recurring theme that couldn’t be emphasized enough toward the veterans who packed the Plant City TECO Expo Hall, on Sunday.
It was the 3rd annual Plant City Honors our Veterans and Active Military event, commemorating servicemen and servicewomen. It was the first time it resumed since the yearly function was halted due to COVID-19.
Many came out in support for the program which was a cooperative effort between the Plant City Elks Lodge #1727, Plant City Main Street, and the City of Plant City.
As the ceremony began, everyone stood in reverence as Chaplain Daniel Middlebrooks led with the Pledge of Allegiance and as the national anthem was sung by Alyssa Conte, a Five 5 Recording artist.
Judy Wise is a member of Elks Lodge #1727 and chairwoman for the Elks District Veterans’ Services. She offered a welcome and thanks to those in attendance, and sentimental words about the men and women in uniform.
“The Elks motto is ‘So long as there are veterans, the benevolent and protective order of the Elks will never forget them,’” she recited.
And those soldiers were far from forgotten as each aspect of the ceremony was in remembrance of them.
Florida State Senator Danny Burgess was the keynote speaker. He is also the former executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Burgess currently serves as a U.S. Army Reserve Major and is the grandson of an army veteran.
“This freedom isn’t a free gift, it’s something that every person that has served or worn a uniform has given to us,” he said to the audience. “A veteran, by definition, bleeds red, white and blue. You’re the backbone of the community.”
He noted that Florida is one of the top three states with the largest veteran population, and that the number in the Sunshine State continues to grow.
Burgess also mentioned the U.S. troops who answered the call of duty and served in Afghanistan for two decades.
“So few carry the weight for so many years,” he stated. “How does one sustain that?”
A tribute was given to the 13 U.S. soldiers who were killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, on Aug. 26. In front of the stage were 13 chairs lined in a row. Each seat showcased the name and portrait of those service members and military boots were placed on the floor, one pair for each chair.
As the names were called out, a rose was placed on each seat.
Those officers were:
Marine Corps Lance Cpl. David L. Espinoza; Marine Corps Sgt. Nicole L. Gee; Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Darin T. Hoover; Army Staff Sgt. Ryan C. Knauss; Marine Corps Cpl. Hunter Lopez; Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Rylee J. McCollum; Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Dylan R. Merola; Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Kareem M. Nikoui; Marine Corps Sgt. Johanny Rosario Pichardo; Marine Corps Cpl. Humberto A. Sanchez; Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jared M. Schmitz; Navy Hospital Corpsman Maxton W. Soviak; and Marine Corps Cpl. Daegan W. Page. Col. Richard Glorioso did the presentation of the POW/MIA table, in which each of its settings hold a symbolic meaning.
• The table is set for one for the prisoner who endures struggles alone.
• The table is round, showing the everlasting concern that the country has for its POWs and MIAs
• The white cloth covering the table is for the purity of each soldier’s intentions
• The single rose represents the blood that soldiers were willing to shed
• The single rose also is for loved ones who have kept faith in a soldier’s safe return
• The yellow ribbon tied around the vase is the constant prayers for a soldier’s safe return
• The slice of lemon is a reminder of a soldier’s bitter fate
• A pinch of salt are the tears shed for the missing
• The lighted candle also reflects hope for a soldier’s return home
• The Bible is the strength that is gained by having faith
• The glass turned upside down is a soldier’s inability to share a toast with loved ones
• The empty chair is a reminder of a soldier’s absence, yet never forgetting the sacrifice
Plant City Mayor Rick Lott took to the stage to express his gratitude to U.S. servicemen and servicewomen.
“When you say ‘thank you’ with passion, with love, I don’t think there’s words any more stronger,” he said. “No one has served our country as well and as hard as you have.”
The Quilts of Valor Foundation also came out to recognize four servicemen. Retired USAF Master Sgt. Tammy Arnold called out their names and gave a brief history of their service, as they came forward.
Those servicemen were: Petty Officer 3rd Class John Wolfe, Sgt. Carl Dekle, Warrant Officer 2 Robert Johnson, and Lt. Col. Jerry Goss.
Each gentleman was draped with their own quilt.
Mike Smith, past national president for the Elks and Plant City native, shared some history about the Elks Lodge.
“Our mission as Elks is to serve veterans, youth and get involved in our communities,” he said.
He went on to state that there are over 900,000 Elks members spread nationally among 2,000 Lodges.
During World War I, the Elks War Relief Commission was formed. This commission helped establish the first two bases in France.
And in 1918, the Elks built a 700-bed hospital in Boston, to care for wounded soldiers.
In the same year, the organization constructed a 72-room community house, in Sherman, Ohio, to accommodate family members who visited soldiers stationed there.
To this day, the Elks Lodge, including #1727, continues to support veterans.
Judy Wise was instrumental in having a POW/MIA flag raised at its new location – the Veterans’ Memorial Park in Plant City.
“It makes me feel so good,” said Wise. “The veterans are my heart, they always have been.”
Elks Lodge #1727 had issued a freedom grant to put the ceremony together and asked the community to contribute as well. On behalf of Chaplaincy Care Inc., Middlebrooks presented Wise with the Chaplaincy Care Coin of Excellence.
“We give this not only to our first responders and our military, but we also give it to those who have a deep love for our men and women, and we are so thankful for you and the Elks Club,” he said.
Chaplaincy Care Inc. is a non-profit organization whose mission is to assist first responders – including veterans.
Middlebrooks, a Plant City native, is the founder who conceptualized the idea.
It offers first responders counseling, tools to be efficient servants, and is often a safe-haven for them.
However, the importance of educating the youth about who veterans are and their significance, is a constant mission.
The Durant High School Air Force JROTC gave the presentation of colors at the ceremony.
And Plant City’s Scout Pack 744 walked on the stage with U.S. military flags in hand, representing each branch.
“Our youth, when they see generation after generation of service for the betterment of everybody,” said Lott, “I think that installs those values into the next generation to do as the one before them.”
Burgess explained that when attending these kinds of events, he has his children interview an individual veteran, draw pictures and get to know them.
“I would like the kids to understand that freedom is not free,” said a teary-eyed Wise. “We’ve paid a tremendous price in blood and treasure.”