Veterans attending the dedication of Patriot Plaza on Saturday may have never before felt such a wave of admiration and appreciation for their service.
The ceremony at Sarasota National Cemetery put lumps in throats and tears in eyes throughout the 2,800-seat amphitheater -- built to honor veterans, inspire patriotism, and celebrate freedom.
James Duffy, a Navy veteran who served during the "shock and awe" days of the Iraq War, struggled out of his wheelchair and stood at unsteady attention during the ceremony, as other veterans turned to applaud him.
Duffy, who had a traumatic brain injury and suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, didn't need to speak to show his patriotism and pride in his service.
"He got choked up a little," his mother, Regina Brooks, said. "Wow, this is a great space. It exceeds our expectations."
John Davis, a Navy veteran of World War II, echoed those sentiments.
"I am really thrilled," Davis said in awe. "This is a wonderful thing."
Joan Moran's Korean War veteran husband and Air Force veteran, Gil Moran, is interred at Sarasota National Cemetery. She reveled in the spectacular Patriot Plaza dedication.
"I couldn't stop the tears," she said. "I am so proud of the patriotism in this area and in this state."
Chuck Meyers, a 96-year-old Army Air Corps veteran, called the plaza "absolutely fantastic."
The raising of a giant American flag for the playing of the National Anthem was his favorite moment in the program.
"It was just unbelievable," Meyers said.
Another favorite was the reading of a poem by third-grader Will Hartvigsen titled "Imagine."
In the poem, Will asked the crowd to imagine the hardships suffered by veterans in war time, and to try imagining being a veteran.
After the ceremony, Will said he wrote the poem in honor of his grandfather, Walter Hartvigsen, who is buried in the cemetery.
The $12 million Patriot Plaza, funded by The Patterson Foundation, is the first of its kind donated to any of the 131 national cemeteries in the United States.
Patriot Plaza provides a focal point honoring the men and women buried on the hallowed grounds of the cemetery, said John Rosentrater, director of Sarasota National Cemetery.
Glenn R. Powers, deputy secretary for field operations of the National Cemetery Administration, called Patriot Plaza an "extraordinary gift" and an example for other communities.
While Patriot Plaza offers seating and shade, it is far more than an amphitheater.
Carefully selected artwork highlights veterans' service and sacrifice, and makes Patriot Plaza an outdoor museum.
The plaza is a place for the living and for reflection, said Debra Jacobs, president and CEO of The Patterson Foundation.
"You are the 1 percent who came to protect freedom for the other 99 percent," Jacobs said in honor of all veterans.
"Let us not forget the story behind every grave."
U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, closed out Saturday's ceremony.
"God bless our veterans and God bless America," Buchanan said.
James A. Jones Jr., Herald reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.