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Fundraising goal surpassed for flag placement at Sarasota National Cemetery on Memorial Day

SARASOTA -- At 8 a.m. Saturday, American flags are set to be placed on every headstone at Sarasota National Cemetery.

The plan was made possible through donations and the work of volunteers with Flags For Fallen Vets, a nonprofit organization that aims to place the American flag on every gravesite in each national cemetery throughout the United States for Memorial Day.

Here in Sarasota, the fundraising goal of $15,000 to purchase more than 10,000 flags was not only met -- it was surpassed. And 330 people have signed up to help place flags on the headstones.

"I am very humbled and very grateful to our community," said Meshia Richardson, a 57-year-old real estate agent from Parrish who helped lead the effort alongside Tami Martin, 54, of Clearwater.

Richardson's husband, Ronald Richardson, is buried in Sarasota National Cemetery. He was a Navy veteran with a background in aviation. He died Jan. 4 after being diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis in December 2013.

After the Bradenton Herald published a story in April about the flag effort, Richardson received a flood of phone calls. She even met with individuals wanting to make personal donations, including a 90-year-old veteran from Bradenton.

Veterans organizations also helped greatly, Richardson said.

"American Legion Post 325 and American Legion Post 24 were huge donors," she said. "They helped tremendously with not only with their fundraising, but in getting the word out to other individuals."

Francis Damia, a Gulf War veteran, plans to be at the cemetery Friday to help plant flags on the headstones. His wife, Amanda Damia, is also a veteran.

"Being a veteran, I support all veterans -- from Vietnam to Korean to the Gulf War -- any conflict," the 59-year-old Bradenton resident said last week. "I'm 100 percent supportive of what we do."

Damia, who is originally from France but became a U.S. citizen in 1983, said he lost two soldiers in the Gulf War. He had to take them home in caskets.

"From that day one, I'm 100 percent for veterans," he said. "I attend anything that I can. I support them 100 percent, being one."

When he learned that the fundraising goal to place flags at Sarasota National Cemetery was surpassed, Damia thought it was awesome.

"To me, that shows that civilian counterparts are there," he said. "The support is there, especially in Florida."

Richardson invites the public to come and look at the flags once they're all planted. Her voice shook as she spoke about her late husband.

"I think he's proud," she said. "I think he's very proud just of everyone -- proud that this is going to be done. He was a true patriot."

Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter@AmarisCastillo.

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