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Hundreds turn out to remember: Sarasota National Cemetery hosts 2nd Memorial Day service

SARASOTA — We are compelled to remember.

Bill Field, of Bradenton, was talking about those missing in action or held as prisoners of war. But he was also talking about a nation’s duty to remember its war dead.

Field was one of several speakers addressing a crowd of more than 600 on Sunday at Sarasota National Cemetery in the second Memorial Day observance at the national shrine.

But for some, especially family members, they can’t forget their loss.

After the services, Anne Mack sat on the ground in a summer outfit next to the tombstone of her husband, Thomas.

Lt. Thomas Mack served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II as a navigator, and suffered a shrapnel wound to his eye that cut his service short.

He passed away Jan. 26, and Anne Mack was wistful as she talked about the man she loved.

He survived the war, and although he was partially disabled by his wounds, he went on to earn a law degree.

“He was a great entertainer,” she said of the spirit and sense of humor with which Thomas Mack lived his life.

“He was very proud of his country,” Anne Mack said. Anyone who walks into a national cemetery should feel like their “heart is going to pop right out of their chest.”

On the other side of the cemetery, Kim Rhyne and other family members were visiting the grave of her grandfather, Charles Puckett, who served aboard submarines during World War II.

“Granddaddy did a lot of neat things,” Rhyne said.

Another family member, Pam Gibbs, said the family is blessed to have her dad and her brother, Charles Puckett and Charles “Chuck” Puckett II, a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War, interred at Sarasota National Cemetery.

“My dad knew Mr. Hawkins. He would be glad to be here where they were cowboys together,” Pam Gibbs said.

Before the property on State Road 72 became a national cemetery, it was the Hawkins Ranch, land that had been farmed continuously since the 1800s.

Today, it is a growing national cemetery with the remains of more than 2,300 at rest there, in less than two years.

Deborah Puckett, the wife of Chuck Puckett for 20 years, said they had their first date when they were 15, but didn’t marry until 20 years later.

“He was a rock. He took care of everybody he loved,” she said.

Matt Bruce, who served as master of ceremonies for Sunday’s observance, said “respect” is another key word for any Memorial Day observance.

Respect for those who served, respect for those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and respect for those who serve today, he said.

Wesley Jones, director of the ceremony and a Vietnam vet, said unfortunately, some veterans are laid to rest without any family members to grieve for them or to pay their respects.

When that happens, the Friends of Sarasota National Cemetery step forward.

“We have had 30 to 35 veterans show up to support that veteran. You don’t have any idea about who’s there. And it doesn’t matter because we are all comrades,” Jones said.

U.S. Sen. George LeMieux was the guest speaker Sunday.

“This is a day to say thank you. Freedom isn’t free,” LeMieux said, remarking on the difficult and dangerous tasks the United States asks of its 18-, 19- and 20-year-old men and women in uniform.

He marveled at the spirit of troops he has visited in the field.

“To a person they are there because they care about their country,” LeMieux said. “They are so optimistic about our country.”

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee Editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.

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