Freedom 'pilgrims' come to honor those who sacrificed

SARASOTA NATIONAL CEMETERY -- They trekked with focus and resolve to these emerald fields lined with marble headstones on a fiery hot Sunday afternoon.

Undeterred by the heat, they came, like pilgrims on a mission, carrying flowers, like Bradenton's Geraldine Schule, 80, to place on a grave site, in her case, the grave of her beloved husband, Bradenton's Rodney W. Schule, who had served in the U.S. Navy and Merchant Marine.

They came, like Rich and Mare Muno of Venice, to honor their neighbor, James Orr of the U.S. Air Force, who was laid to rest here on Clark Road two years ago.

They came, like Bradenton's Stefenie Hernandez and 14 others in her family, to lay a wreath during a special Memorial Day moment here in honor of Hernandez's son, Spc. 4 Patrick Lay, who died in Afghanistan on Aug. 11, 2011.

And, they came from Tallahassee, in a convoy of black vehicles containing Gov. Rick Scott and his wife, Ann, both of whom walked with the pilgrims, hugging many, including those in the Hernandez family and the Schule family.

Ann and Rick Scott later said they understand the desire many have to be a freedom pilgrim and

come to a place like Sarasota National Cemetery on Memorial Day weekend, a time set aside to honor those who gave their lives for their country.

"You can't know what it feels like unless you have lost a family member in the service of his or her country," a humble Scott, the keynote speaker, said during a 45-minute Memorial Day ceremony attended by about 400 under a tent here.

Scott's father was in the 82nd Airborne during World War II and he himself served in the U.S. Navy.

Jets forge an unforgettable moment

At about 1:40 p.m., just after U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Bradenton, was being introduced to speak, four F-16s from the 482nd Fighter Wing at Homestead Air Force base roared in formation over the tent.

"I'd like to say that I set that up," Buchanan said as the crowd roared as loud as the jets. "But that was the governor."

Before the service, Scott hugged family members not only of Spc. 4 Lay of Bradenton but also the family of Lance Cpl. Nathaniel L. Schultz of Riverview, who were also part of the wreath ceremony. Both men were killed in Afghanistan and are interred here.

Scott also went through the audience and shook hands with veterans.

The Munos said that everyone should experience the power of a Memorial Day service held here.

"When our friend, Jim, was buried here it was very organized and touching," Richard Muno said. "They played taps and presented Pat, his wife, with a folded American flag. There was caring in everything they did. No one here goes through the motions."

Lay's family also feels special about Memorial Day and this place.

"It gives me great comfort that Patrick's memory will not die," Stefenie Hernandez said. "I am comforted that his country appreciates what he did."

Lay's sister, Nikki Lay, was at the service as were his grandparents, Ben and Connie Eason and Lois Perdue.

"It's a bittersweet day," said Perdue, who added that she and Nikki Lay feel Patrick's presence regularly. "It is great that we honor them, but it is also painful because you go through it all again."