In uniform and formation, numerous Hillsborough County students stepped up to drill home their respect for military service and tradition at the 49th Annual Veterans Day Tribute at Veterans Memorial Park and Rear Admiral LeRoy Collins Jr. Veterans Museum in Tampa. The park is located along U.S. 301.
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. John Wayne said he hasn’t missed the past 17 such tributes, which this year, on Sunday, Nov. 10, featured Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps members from Chamberlain, Leto, Middleton, Bloomingdale, Spoto and Newsome high schools.
“They’re probably the most important reason the veterans appreciate this event,” said Wayne, Bloomingdale High School’s Air Force JROTC instructor. “Veterans want to see young people in uniform. That’s been my experience over the years. The fact you have young people coming up behind them, that’s important to every veteran. That inspires them.”
Wayne stressed, too, that the JROTC mission isn’t out to recruit soldiers but to build citizens and leaders, and that with that obligation comes a respect for tradition and for the people who answer the call of duty.
“We’re here to honor all the veterans who came out today,” said senior Angel Diaz, commanding officer of the Navy JROTC program at Leto High School.
“We really want to salute the people who served their country,” added senior Jessee Duque, of the Army JROTC program at Newsome High.
“Our mission is citizenship,” echoed Major Mike Mistretta Jr., instructor for the Air Force JROTC instructor at Middleton High. “And this is part of that citizenship mission. Memorial Day you honor the deceased and Veterans Day is designed to honor living veterans and it’s important that we do that. This is a way for our community to say, ‘Thank you.’ It’s an acknowledgment of their service, of their efforts.”
Among the tribute attendees was wheelchair-bound John Meredith, 83, of Sun City Center, who in World War II served with the Marines and in Korea served with the Army.
“Between myself and my three sons, Raymond, Dale and Roger, we covered every branch of the service but the Coast Guard,” he said. “My family members have fought in every war from the French and Indian War to the present-day war in Iraq.”
His fondest memories are of the friends he made in service. His worst memory is that of his combat jump out a plane in Munsan-ni, Korea.
“I was only 15 when I joined the Marines,” Meredith said. “I forged my birth certificate, which a lot of people did back then. All they wanted was warm bodies. They didn’t check documents too closely.”
As for why he enlisted, “mostly for patriotism,” he said. “It sounded like a good idea at the time.”
Nearby was Fran Harring, who with other members of the Greater Riverview Chamber of Commerce traveled to the park for the Veterans Day tribute.
“My father was in World War I and my uncle was in World War II so I grew up learning about the military and knowing about the sacrifice,” said Harring, whose husband, Tony, served in Vietnam twice and is a Purple Heart recipient. Harring is a member of the chamber’s fledgling Military Affairs Committee, headed by Joe Eletto.
“It doesn’t matter who you work for, what group or organization, we’re all out here supporting the military and working hard to keep Veterans Day in the limelight,” she said.
So, too, the students of area high school JROTC programs, who are invited to the annual Veterans Day tribute by the presenting organization, the Veterans Council of Hillsborough County. The organization is headed by Navy veteran Walt Raysick, a Brandon resident.
“This is the eighth year that they’ve done this with us and every year we’ve been able to get up to 100 JROTC cadets from the various schools to join us,” Raysick said. “This is tomorrow’s leadership. They’re our potential congressmen, entrepreneurs, military leaders. They, too, are potential veterans.”
Jamiley Cardenas, with the Navy JROTC at Spoto High School in Riverview, is counting on it.
“My aunt’s in the military and I want to be in the military,” she said. “I see how dedicated she is, how uniformed she is, and how much more organized she is and I want that kind of structure in my life.”
Col. Lonnie Dale Vona is with the Army JROTC program at Newsome High, where the group’s banner-year enrollment is up to 220 students. The Nov. 10 tribute at Veterans Memorial Park “is the county’s biggest Veterans Day ceremony that’s not at a cemetery,” he said. “They’ve done a lot of work at the park. Every time I come out here there’s something different.”
The Korean War Veterans Memorial was dedicated July 27, joining the Veterans Freedom Memorial, the USS Tang World War II Submarine Memorial, the Fallen Heroes Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The Iraq Veterans Memorial is scheduled to be dedicated 3 p.m. Dec. 14. Groundbreaking for the World War II Memorial is scheduled for Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day. The Spanish-American War Memorial is scheduled to be dedicated in January and the Committed Forces Memorial a month later. The War Between the States Memorial is in the planning stage.
Vona, a self-described “Army, Cold War soldier,” said he served 30 years before retiring in 2002. He’s been teaching for 12 years, including three at Hillsborough High. He started the Newsome JROTC program nine years ago.
“Discipline is something that attracts some people to JROTC,” he said. “I graduated from Plant High School in 1968 and as a cadet there I enjoyed the drill team, the rifle team. Now, as a teacher, I’m back teaching cadets. It’s come full circle. I’m back to JROTC, where it all started.”