BRADENTON -- As a crowd filtered in to Manatee County Veterans' Park early Memorial Day service, five members of the Braden River High School Junior Officer Training Corps greeted veterans and families with smiles and programs.
All five plan to go in to the armed forces after high school.
"I want to fight for this country," said Cooper Kutt, a JRTC member and sophomore at Braden River High School. "I love this country very much."
Derrington Williams, also a JRTC member and junior at Braden River High School, nodded in agreement as they prepared to help present the colors.
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Monday morning's crowd of veterans, families and community members admired the avenue of 25 American flags posted around the park, including one at half staff with a Prisoners of War/Missing in Action flag flying beneath it.
Some of the 25 American flags were at one time casket flags used in military services and were donated by the families for use in ceremonies, Chairman of Manatee County Veterans Council Don Courtney said.
At least 400 people came to Monday morning's service -- lower than in previous years, treasurer of the
Manatee County Veterans Council Stan Weyman said. But he still believes the service was a success. There are more events to choose from this year, he said.
"People haven't stopped caring; they're just more spread out," Weyman said. "A lot of the posts are having their own events.
"There are so many things to go to today, and it's hard to be in more than one place at one time."
If it hadn't been for a leg injury from a farming accident, Weyman would have joined the service himself. Regardless, he feels obliged to America's service men and women.
"I couldn't serve, but if I can serve a vet, I will serve a vet," he said.
Other local organizations, including Manatee Educational Television, Manatee Memorial Hospital, the Marine Corps League Desoto Detachment No. 588 and the Korean War Veterans Association Detachment No. 199, helped with set-up and provided water for Monday morning's event.
Almost all blood donated at the adjacent blood drive will stay in Manatee County; if it leaves Manatee, it will go to a veteran somewhere, Courtney said.
Emmett Dykes, a 60-year-old son of a veteran, was at the service to talk to veterans about local Honor Flight chapters. Honor Flight is a national organization dedicated to flying veterans, free of charge, to Washington, D.C. to see memorials for World War II and Korean War veterans.
Although Dykes isn't a veteran himself, he feels compelled to serve for the veterans who made sacrifices for his rights.
"This is for their honor," Dykes said. "They stood up for my rights and freedom; this is what I can do to give back to them."
There are nine regional Honor Flight hubs in Florida, and Dykes is involved with the West-Central hub in St. Petersburg. The Southwest Florida hub is located in Bradenton. He said each honor flight carries 80 veterans and each veteran has a guardian who travels with them.
Command Sgt. Maj. Steve Valley was the guest speaker at the service, and testified to why Dykes and others volunteer for the sake of America's veterans.
"Democracy isn't perfect," Valley said. "Nothing ever is. In fact, it's quite messy. It takes the blood and sweat of American military members to win democracy and freedom.
"Sacrifice is meaningless without remembrance," Valley said.
Janelle O'Dea, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow her on Twitter @jayohday.