The spectators at the 48th annual Veterans Day Tribute in Tampa spanned the spectrum, from gray-bearded, leather-vested, men who ride Harley-Davidsons to towheaded children waving small American flags.
Most claimed some connection to a military family.
The official ceremony was held today at Veterans Memorial Park on U.S. 301, just east of Tampa. More than 500 came to listen to speeches and patriotic music and to watch precision drills performed by a couple of high school Junior ROTC cadets.
Tears flowed when retired Marine and Tampa Fire Rescue firefighter Chip Shields sang "God Bless the USA" as a vintage B-17 bomber roared overhead. Flags waved and hands were held aloft, many showing the sign for peace or victory.
The observance was the main one in Hillsborough County, though there have been about a dozen such programs around the region, starting Friday and continuing Sunday. The reason: Tampa is flush with veterans about 400,000 of them, according to the keynote speaker, U.S. Air Force Col. Scott DeThomas, who took over operations at MacDill Air Force Base in July.
"It's quite a town you have here," DeThomas said after the ceremony.
Calling Tampa "rich in military history," DeThomas said he had heard about Tampa being a city stocked with active duty personnel, reservists and retired vets.
The ceremony was held under old oaks with sprawling limbs that rained leaves with every nudge of the smooth breeze. People streamed into the park with its helicopters and military gear on display throughout the grounds; its memorials to various conflicts and the Rear Admiral LeRoy Collins Jr. Veterans Museum.
DeThomas said he was impressed with the turnout and the number of retired veterans who showed up.
He commented on the number of hats and T-shirts worn by veterans who served in different wars and were in harm's way across the globe over the past decades.
"It's great to see you come out in force," he said. "I'm reminded how fortunate I am to be in this military."
Veterans Day is about paying tribute to that community, he said.
"We honor all those who have served," DeThomas said. It gives us a chance to reflect on our experiences. It's important to remember those who have fallen and all those who are unaccounted for."
Veterans are the reason the nation is strong, DeThomas said.
"Their contribution, their sacrifice, their service, enables us all to succeed in today's world," he said.
Among the dignitaries seated behind DeThomas was Rose Stolarcek, a member of the Gold Star Wives, whose husband died 15 years ago, after he served more than 32 years in the service. He did tours of duty in Vietnam and Desert Storm, she said.
"My son served in Desert Storm the same time as my husband," she said, beaming with pride as she talked about them.
"I'm a mom and a wife," she said. "I've been through six wars, and I think I've done my duty."