When Stanton Clark, quartermaster of Palma Sola VFW Post 10141, came in at 7:15 a.m. on Monday morning, he didn’t believe what he saw.
A helicopter striped red, white and blue had seemingly landed in the parking lot. In the cockpit sat Santa Claus, and the backseat was stuffed with presents. A Christmas tree poked out of one side.
Bold letters on the side read “Thank you for your service.”
“I said ‘What is that?’” Clark said. “Then I found a note in the door that explained everything.”
The arrival of the chopper was the beginning of a holiday surprise that a group of friends planned for members of the Bradenton VFW post, playfully named “Operation Santa’s Coming in Hot.”
Eric Grimes, a Cortez entrepreneur and CEO of Hooray Inc., organized the feat with other local business owners.
The group assembled donations of gifts for the veterans with a combined value of more than $20,000, including a kitchen makeover, gift cards, charter boat trips, event tickets and art.
On Monday evening, about 120 veterans and their family members piled into the VFW for dinner, socializing and gift-getting. Cortez restaurant Swordfish Grill provided the food and drink.
“It was totally a surprise,” said post commander Bob Muhlhauser. “In my years with the VFW it’s one of the nicest things I’ve seen done for veterans.”
The helicopter “crash landed” in front of the VFW at around 2 a.m. Monday morning.
The Bell 206 JetRanger actually crashed while in service with Levy County Sheriff’s Office, according to Grimes. Then he bought it, and he has been looking for something special to do with it ever since.
Grimes started brainstorming with friends about three months ago.
“He called me up and we started talking about what we could give away, what we could do that would be special,” said Cliff Anderson of Progressive Cabinetry in Bradenton. Anderson coordinated the donation of a kitchen makeover for the event with local builders, including services from his own company.
Teresa Burgess, owner of Saltair, a gift shop in Holmes Beach, was also in on the surprise. Burgess built the life-size model Santa Claus from scratch and also donated to the giveaway.
Cortez artist Rose Lipke adorned the helicopter in patriotic colors using graffiti paint.
“They told me they wanted to honor vets, and I took it from there,” Lipke said. An oil painting by Lipke was also raffled on Monday night.
A long list of Cortez and Bradenton businesses contributed goods and services to the event. The big prizes were raffled off, and others were given out to all who attended.
Grimes says he wants to make planning a holiday surprise into a new tradition.
“We’ll top it next year. We want to bless the community and the people that protected us.”
The sentiment struck home with the members of VFW Post 10141.
“Everything they are doing is beyond cool,” Clark said. “Especially at this time of year. It’s hard for a lot of people.”
We are very appreciative,” Muhlhauser said. “As a community, we should make sure that we take care of veterans first.”
As for the helicopter, Grimes said it may become a permanent fixture atop the VFW—if they can swing the red tape.