Anthony Rizzo stood alone among a sea of about 32,000 flags, each adorning a grave at Bay Pines National Cemetery.
Wearing an Army uniform with service pins and a maroon beret, Rizzo stood with his arms folded behind his back and his feet firmly planted – until the speakers at Monday’s Memorial Day ceremony began to talk of those missing in battle.
Rizzo broke his stance to wipe away tears with a white handkerchief. After a few solemn moments, his tears gone from behind dark aviator sunglasses, he gave a curt salute and walked away.
Every year, Rizzo, an Army veteran who spent two years in Vietnam, attends this service, the largest in Pinellas County. He was a paratrooper, a member of the infantry and a radio operator. He’s battled unseen enemies and even fellow Americans who, at the time, couldn’t understand why he went to war.
Many of his friends are buried here, the only national cemetery in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, among soldiers who died in conflicts as old as the Indian wars.
"There was a lot of sacrifice, a lot of tears, a lot of battles," Rizzo said. "By the grace of God and some good medics, I made it, so I owe this tribute to those who did not. ... Now that we're finally viewed as honorable warriors, it’s worth it."
U.S. Rep. C.W. “Bill” Young, the Indian Rocks Beach Republican, used the ceremony to promote a new initiative that videotapes veterans telling their stories for preservation in the Library of Congress.
After the ceremony, hundreds of veterans flocked to the podium for more information from Young and to share their tales of wars that still affect their lives today.
When he was 17 he enlisted in the Marines, served in Vietnam and experienced “lots of good times and bad times,” he said. Just two weeks ago, at the age of 63 and only a year into his retirement, his left leg had to be amputated after a tiny cut became infected.
There were complications because of his diabetes, which he blamed on exposure in Vietnam to the jungle defoliant Agent Orange. But with all the trauma he saw in his years of service, losing a leg doesn’t faze him, he said.
In fact, he’s thankful for the opportunity to serve.
“War will have a lifetime effect on your spirit, but it gives me pride to be part of a country that defends what’s right,” Whiting said. “I’m still here. I’m still grateful to be alive. I’ve never second guessed it. I would do it all again.”
Whiting is a minister at Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. He is recuperating at Bay Pines VA Medical Center, adjacent to the cemetery, and when he gets out he plans to find ways of giving back to his community.
“I like to serve people. Sometimes I don’t quite understand why myself,” he said.
During the ceremony Monday, Kimberly Erturk knelt with her 3-year-son at her father’s grave, telling the boy about the grandfather he never met as tears streamed down her face.
It’s been two years since she has visited John Gibson’s grave, who died in 2005 at the age of 64 after a long battle with lung cancer. He quit high school to join the Navy and had a long career in the Army Reserve, she said. He picked up the nickname “Stone Face” in the military, she said, but was always able to keep his sense of humor.
“My dad was a character,” Erturk said. “All of the pictures we have of him he’s making funny faces. He would booby trap his office bathroom so water would shoot out of the faucet.”
His frantic parents finally found him as bagpipers began to play Amazing Grace.
Why didn’t he tell anyone where he was going?
Simple, he said, with an impish grin reminiscent of his “Papa John”: They had told him to be quiet during the ceremony.
Said Erturk, “Most of the people here are older; I worry that his generation won’t appreciate and understand the sacrifices our soldiers make.”
Still, she said, she draws hope from the young people she did see – Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts among them, placing the flags at each of the graves long before the first visitors arrived, passing out cold water and wheeling veterans to the ceremony from the hospital.
Then there was the flag ceremony and 21-gun salute to end the ceremony, performed by the Timber Creek High School Air Force Corps Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps.
For JROTC member Ahmod Tisdale, 16, there is no question veterans deserve his respect. Tisdale wants to join the Air Force, be a protector, and give back to those who sacrificed for him, he said.
It’s a feeling shared by more of his peers then their parents may think: “As long as there are soldiers, there will be people who respect them.”