Memorial Day weekend begins by honoring Manatee's fallen service members

MANATEE -- Before the grills were lit, before the drinks started flowing, some started the weekend remembering why it's a holiday.

Dozens of military veterans, their loved ones and community members gathered at 9 a.m. Saturday for the annual "Preparing for Memorial Day" service at Manasota Memorial Park's Garden of Valor in Bradenton.

Frank Pondillo walked between the graves reflecting on all the fallen soldiers.

"I like to pay respect to the veterans who gave their lives for our freedom," Pondillo said. "It means a lot to me."

The U.S. Army veteran said he believes it is important to never forget the sacrifice made by his fallen comrades. After his two years with the Army in Germany, he served as a New York firefighter for 28 years, he said.

Pondillo attends the memorial every year, he said.

Keynote speaker and retired U.S. Coast Guard member Pieter Visser took everyone back to "The beginning of the End" and the events leading up to D-Day. He asked

everyone to close their eyes and picture Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower giving his order to soldiers over the radio June 6, 1944.

"Soldiers, sailors and airmen of the allied expeditionary forces: You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you," Visser read in a lively attempt to re-create Eisenhower's voice. "Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely. ... I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory."

Larry Bustle, chairman of the Manatee County Board of Commissioners and a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War, was scheduled to give the keynote address as he has done in previous years, but is recovering from a minor stroke this month so Visser stepped in.

After the laying of the wreaths, Linda Sanborn, of American Legion Auxiliary Unit No. 312, read the poem, "In Flanders Field."

"Take our quarrel with the foe. To you from failing hands we throw the torch. Be yours to hold it high," she read. "If ye break faith with us who die we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders Field."

The service included a 21-gun salute and benediction by Father Joseph Connolly of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Catholic Church. At the conclusion, those in attendance were invited to use the flags received to decorate graves in the park.

Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.