Manatee Memorial Day observance to have focus on Vietnam War

jajones1@bradenton.comMay 22, 2014 

MANATEE -- Although Memorial Day pays tribute to all men and women who gave their lives in defense of American freedoms, Manatee County's primary observance this year will be dedicated to Vietnam veterans.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that authorized President Lyndon Baines Johnson to use conventional force in Vietnam, escalating the war.

It also marks the first year the Vietnam War Memorial, with the names of 30 Manatee County residents who died in the war, has been at Veterans Park near Manatee Memorial Hospital.

Previously, the memorial was a fixture at Manatee County Historic Courthouse. It was moved at the request of local vets, said President Don Courtney of the Manatee Veterans Council.

Retired Navy Commander Brad Smith of Bradenton will be keynote speaker for the observance at 9 a.m. Monday,. Smith was shot down March 25, 1966, on his 80th combat mission. He was flying an A-4 Skyhawk for the U.S. Navy near Vinh, North Vietnam. Smith was held prisoner of war for nearly seven years in North Vietnam's notorious prisons.

For the first four years of captivity, Smith's parents didn't know whether he was alive or dead.

"Every morning you wake up there are two options: You live or you are going to die. You eat garbage. You put up with a lot of beatings and torture. You continue regardless of what happens," he said in a 2011 Herald interview.

Sarasota National Cemetery, 9810 State Road 72, plans a Memorial Day observance at 3 p.m. Sunday. Lee Washington, Manatee County veteran services officer who is also a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, will be

keynote speaker.

Lyrics from the song "Amazing Grace" represent the spirit of Manatee-Sarasota in remembering those resting in the Sarasota National Cemetery, Washington said.

"It just touches me," Washington said. Lyrics like "Grace will lead us home."

Washington was selected as speaker by the Cemetery Advisory Committee.

"The pristine grounds of the cemetery make it a national shrine that perpetuates the legacy of those who gave some as well as those who gave all in defense of our freedoms," said retired Lt. Col. Lee Kitchen, Cemetery Advisory Committee chairman. "These veterans have left us a legacy of selfless service. Whether they died in battle or after living a long and fulfilling life after their military service, they epitomized duty, honor and country."

The Sarasota Military Academy and the Trinity Christian Fellowship Center Choir will perform a medley of patriotic music.

Also planned for 5-9 p.m. Sunday is the sixth annual Tribute to Heroes Parade at Lakewood Ranch Main Street, which includes a parade of about 45 groups and organizations at 6 p.m. followed by a dove release. The Braden River High School Band will perform patriotic music. Children can take part in a decorated bike contest.

Activities include face painting, refreshments and vendor booths. Parade grand marshal is John Breiner, parade founder.

Proceeds benefit Manasota Operation Troop Support. Requested donations, which will be shipped to local troops serving overseas: socks, beef jerky, Slim Jims, Cliff Bars, triple-edge razors, wet wipes, Twizzlers, peanut butter, canned pop stews and pastas, single-serve drink packet mixes and AAA and AA batteries.

At 11 a.m. Saturday, Manasota Memorial Park will hold a Memorial Day service for veterans, families and friends. The American Riders will start the program with a ride from the Chris Cobb American Legion Post 312, 1610 57th Ave. E., in Oneco, to the Manasota Memorial Park Garden of Valor, 1221 53rd Ave. E. The Disabled American Veterans and the American Legion will conduct honors at the service.

Following the service, family, friends and veterans can place the final flags of the weekend on the graves of all veterans.

Many local veterans posts are also planning Memorial Day observances.

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