Manatee County honors its military fallen

jdeleon@bradenton.comMay 28, 2013 

BRADENTON -- Veterans, servicemen, family and friends gathered Monday morning to pay their respects to all those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the name of freedom.

More than 100 people gathered on Memorial Day to pay tribute to military contributors at the Manatee Veterans Memorial Park along the Riverwalk.

"Memorial Day is a day to honor all Americans that have died in all of our wars," keynote speaker Jerome Hilmes said. "It is also a day to renew our commitment to the principals and values for which these Americans have died."

The retired serviceman thanked all those who remembered the purpose of the holiday and came out to pay tribute.

According to Hilmes, 13 percent of Americans will participate in a memorial service or parade, 52 percent will stay home and barbecue and 35 percent will hit the road to go camping or fishing.

"They died there so we may live our American way of life with our form of government," Hilmes said. "We owe them, we owe them and today, fittingly, we honor them."

Hilmes also spoke of the state of the country, focusing on the high debt and runaway government spending as well as the reduction in the defense budget.

"We are a prosperous nation, we can afford it. We are the world's only super power," Hilmes said. "We remain a beacon of hope for disadvantaged countries. As such we have a duty to lead the world in the fight against terrorism and other multinational threats."

Many veterans came out to remember and honor their fellow men and women who died in action.

"It's always a great reminder," said retired Col. Fred Graves.

Graves, a 26-year U.S. Air Force veteran, remembered his military career with fondness.

"It was one of the most rewarding experiments I had," Graves said. "I would have never gotten out but I felt it was time to get out."

Graves said he was disappointed too few people came out to pay tribute.

"The crowd this year is much smaller," Graves said. "There are people that are more interested in shopping than honoring."

One woman came to honor her husband, Warren Sweetman, a World War II veteran who died of cancer in October 2012.

"This is really special. We were here together," misty-eyed widow Lorriane Sweetman said. "Now this is my memorial for him."

Sweetman said she was missing her husband something terrible on the first Memorial Day since he died. She wore his picture pinned on her shirt.

"I just wanted to bring him with me," Sweetman said.

Sweetman also recalled her husband's dedication to honoring veterans on Memorial Day.

One former serviceman POW was elated after the service.

"Right now I'm fantastic," Robert Eldridge said.

Eldridge served four years during WWII and was a prisoner of war in Germany.

"I lost more than 100 pounds," Eldridge said. "I had to be hospitalized for two months afterward to recuperate."

In 1980, Eldridge became a chaplain with the Manatee County Veterans Council.

"I finally had to give it up two years ago," Eldridge said.

The ceremony ended with inspirational words by chaplain Almeada Sheffield.

"Today we stand to remember the most honorable amongst us and we must continue to carry the burden of their sacrifice, lest we lose sight of what true freedom is," Sheffield said. "Today is for remembering. Stand in honor of them, walk in their path of duty, remember the cause, hold in your hearts the cause of freedom. We remember today, Memorial Day, for our veterans."

Jessica De Leon, law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.

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