LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Lakewood Ranch has become a popular place during the Memorial Day weekend to pay tribute to the men and women who served in the U.S. military and paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.
For the past five years, Main Street has been the site of the much-anticipated Tribute to Heroes Parade. This year, the Sunday evening event has swelled to at least 43 participating groups. The crowds have become so large, organizers say they probably will need to search for a new venue.
"It's getting bigger and bigger each year because we hardly turn anybody away, and we have run out of space. So we'll be taking a look at our options following the parade," said Benjamin "Benji" Brinkofski, part of the parade committee and an active member of the VFW Post 12055 in East Manatee. Brinkofski will be riding in an antique car along with other veterans from the Vietnam War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This year, the celebration will begin at 5 p.m. with a stage presentation in front of Pinchers Crab Shack on Main Street, followed by the
parade procession starting in the parking lot of Lakewood Ranch Town Hall and winding around the Polo Grill to Main Street.
Following the national anthem and a military anthem written and sung by Lakewood Ranch resident Sharon Ruckle, the VFW will read the poem "In Flanders Fields," a World War I poem about battlefields left in ruin where red poppies grew over the graves of fallen soldiers, resulting in poppies becoming a recognized Memorial Day symbol.
The procession will feature groups from parade Grand Marshal John Breiner, making his debut in the parade he founded, to local veterans, Miss Lakewood Ranch, marching bands, floats and vintage cars. A dove release will follow the procession along with the ceremonial bugle playing of "Taps."
As in years past, proceeds from the parade will be given to Manasota Operation Troop Support, which is donating a prize for a decorated bike contest, where children will decorate their bicycles, wagons and even strollers and ride together in the parade. Linda Craig, MOTS executive director, is urging visitors to bring donations for troops including nonperishable food, snacks and supplies, like socks and razors, which can be dropped off around the parade.
"There's a misperception because of the news that U.S. troops are withdrawing overseas, but there's still a lot of people deployed, and they need these staples. We'll make sure that our local Bradenton and Sarasota troops receive them," Craig said.
Anthony Driscoll, a member of MOTS who is making his second appearance in the parade, served 20 years in the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, he and his faithful service dog, who assists him because of an autoimmune disease he acquired in Iraq, will be a reminder the conflict is not over.
"It's been going on for so long, people have forgotten because we're not in the limelight any more," he said. "But, being part of the parade, I see the patriotism and the support they give us for protecting our country."
The support from the crowd will also be inspiring to Denny King, a Vietnam veteran and quartermaster of the Braden River VFW. "There's been a big change in how Americans view Vietnam veterans," King said. "Most people are very respectful and appreciative of what we've done."
Parade organizers recommend that people arrive early and bring chairs for seating on the sidewalk. Older veterans are invited to sit at the Veteran Viewing Area near Ed's Tavern.
Kathryn Moschella, Lakewood Ranch reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7010. Follow her Twitter @MoschellaHerald.