BRADENTON -- Before the picnics, before the BBQs or trips to the beach, many residents made sure to pay tribute to those soldiers who gave their lives for the freedoms they enjoy.
Friends and families gathered Monday morning at the Veteran's Monument in Bradenton to honor veterans. Special tribute was given to Vietnam War veterans during the ceremony.
For many, like guest speaker and retired U.S. Navy Commander Brad Smith, it was cause for great reflection. The former prisoner of war recalled one of those lost during a special mission, one of his squad mates.
"On our way into the target, Jack was hit. His airplane fell out of formation as we were flying in," Smith said. "I rolled my airplane and I saw Jack hit the mountain, his aircraft full of fuel, full of bombs exploded. That was the end of Jack."
It was a surreal moment, Smith reflected. A moment he would always remember, and always remember the great man his friend was.
Following the war, Smith felt very angry until an inscription, "Think not of their passing, but rather remember the glory of their spirit," helped him move on.
Smith also recalled earlier years in his life where there was no shopping on Memorial Day. Instead, he remembers going to the cemetery to honor the fallen and then family would gather for a picnic.
It was a time when everyone had family or friends who fought in the war. Today, fewer than 1 percent of our population has enlisted in the military, he said.
"It seems to me because we don't have wide participation in our military or other types of government service or service in general, that we as a nation in some ways feel we don't have any skin in the game," Smith said. "To me that lessens our patriotism, it weakens us as a nation. I hope I'm wrong."
The turnout Monday, however, gave him hope that patriotism is alive.
He concluded by reflecting all those fallen and saying, "Remember their spirit."
Coast Guard wife and Patriot Guard member Sharon Lee Ruckle sang an original song entitled "Tribute -- a military anthem," but not before sharing her thoughts on a soldier who inspired her to write the song.
The best way she could describe a soldier was in the words of a Marine.
"It is the soldier not Congress that protects us and cares for us. It is the soldier, not the press that gives us the freedom of speech. It is the soldier who fights beneath the flag, whose coffin is draped by the flag that gives us the right to burn the flag," Ruckle said.
"He understood. He knew what the meaning of a soldier was."
Among those veterans in attendance was Vietnam Marine veteran Marvin L. Martin. Martin, of Tampa but raised in Manatee, heard about the special Vietnam War veteran tribute on the radio.
"I came back to my hometown," Martin said. "It's time to honor those who took the step to move forward. If guys don't fight, we don't have a country, we have chaos."
Following the ceremony, Florence Culler stood searching for her family members' names on the memorial bricks.
"My family served," Culler said.
Culler still needed to locate one more, her father's. Her father was a survivor of Pearl Harbor.
"I know a lot of these people," she said. "I think more people should take time on Memorial Day and remember."
Veteran Dixon Lang attended Monday's ceremony for the second time since retiring in Bradenton.
Dixon, who served from 1958 to 1960 stateside, was moved Smith's speech.
"He made me think we really need to keep them in our hearts," Lang said. "Every time we see a veteran, we need to thank them. But we also need to back it up with action."
Action as simple, sometimes, as attending a memorial ceremony.
Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.