BRADENTON -- Manatee County’s veterans fondly call it “Big Flag” because it unfurls to 30 feet by 30 feet and is so heavy it can slightly bend the 80-foot tall pole it’s attached to when the wind grabs its enormous expanse of red, white and blue.
Although the big American flag has been part of the majesty of every recent Memorial Day event at Veterans Monument Park just north of Manatee Memorial Hospital, the iconic repository of stars and stripes was sidelined Monday during the Manatee County Veterans Council’s 2011 tribute to those who have given their lives in defense of America.
The flag did not fly because a two-foot-long crack about halfway up the flagpole was discovered a month ago by a Bradenton firefighter who was using a bucket truck to do some maintenance on the flag pole’s rope, said Don Courtney, future chairman of the Manatee County Veterans Council, which owns the flag and flagpole and which has an agreement to use the city’s Monument Park.
“It was too dangerous to fly the big flag Monday,” Courtney said. “When we found out about the crack a month ago, we first thought we would repair it with a weld. But the problem is I am not sure we can get anyone to certify such a weld would be safe.”
After much debate, it was decided that a fund drive by the veterans group will take place to raise the roughly $15,000 needed for a new flag pole and $5,000 for a new cement base around it in time for Memorial Day 2012, Courtney said.
But it wasn’t just the veterans group that shut down the huge Old Glory this year.
Bradenton Fire Department officials, along with Manatee County engineers, stepped in and advised the veterans that under the heavy load the flag delivers, the flag pole could crack off with a crowd of people seated near it, said Manatee County Commissioner Larry Bustle.
“It was deemed unsafe to fly the big flag until we get the pole repaired,” Bustle said. “It was decided to celebrate this Memorial Day using the smaller flags around the pole. This decision was made by the county. We decided to err on the side of caution.”
Bustle and Courtney and others in attendance Monday said the absence of the huge Old Glory didn’t dim the event.
“I think it would have been nice to have the flag, but the ceremony stands on its own and it was done well,” Bustle said.
It seems 10 members of Young Marines of Bradenton helped take the place of one big flag on Monday.
The camouflaged-uniform clad youth group, part of the national Marine Corps League, supplied a color guard, helped lay memorial wreaths, dispensed water for the crowd of nearly 300, put up and took down chairs and did everything cheerfully, many said.
They were led by adult leader Tony Rosado and Young Marine Staff Sgt. William Robinson, 18, who will be a senior next year at Bayshore High School and has committed to enlist with the real U.S. Marines.
“I think people were inspired to see their future freedom fighters,” said Tonya Bloome , whose son, Devin, 17, is a member of Young Marines.
Others in the audience said a thoughtful speech by Bradenton Councilman Patrick Roff and the crystal clear voice of Councilwoman Marianne Barnebey singing the “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “America The Beautiful” also helped make up for the missing flag.
“We are here to honor the brave men and women who help us live the American dream,” Roff said in his speech.
For others, the sight of a young man proud to be a part of an event honoring veterans was inspirational.
That young man was Palmetto High School’s Phillip Cascio, 17, in full Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps uniform, and in charge of directing the Palmetto High Junior ROTC Color Guard.
Watching her son bring his country’s colors forward was emotional for Phillip’s mother, Heather Cascio.
“A lot of people said to me, ‘Why are you letting him get into something so dangerous,’ “ Heather Cascio said, referring to her son’s decision to fight for his country if needed. “But in my heart I believe he is doing something positive by fighting for our freedoms.”
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.