LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Although small in stature, Alma "Gerry" Haller, 95, carries a heavyweight background straight from a World War II novel.
Haller of Lakewood Ranch, the national Legend Senior Living August 2015 "calendar girl," will ride in a special car for the World War II veteran during Memorial Day weekend in the sixth annual Tribute to Heroes Parade at 6 p.m. Sunday, May 24, in Lakewood Ranch.
"It's an honor to be in the parade, and I feel like I'm representing an awful lot of girls who didn't get this chance," Haller said during an afternoon of reminiscing with her daughter, Susan Hall, one of three children Haller had with husband, Paul, who also served in World War II and died after almost 65 years of marriage.
Haller graduated from high school at age 16 and went to work as an accountant for the state of New Mexico in Santa Fe. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, hearing many boys she had grown up with died in the Bataan Death March in the Philippines, she said she felt a moral and patriotic duty to do her part.
Haller joined the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps and eventually found her way to Washington, D.C., where 150 young women lived in bunkers beneath the National Arboretum to man anti-aircraft defense stations using search lights and 90 mm guns to guard the na
"We were four girls in my family and I just thought I could take the place of a man. Even though I was a skinny runt, I was committed to doing this," Haller said.
She won't be alone as a veteran in the parade, of course.
This year's parade grand marshal, Benjamin "Benjie" Brinkofski, is a Vietnam veteran, a Manatee County resident and member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 12055 -- Braden River.
Brinkofski served in Vietnam as a U.S. Army sergeant and will represent at the parade all his Army comrades who didn't return alive, he said.
"I was in Vietnam at the height of the war when 500 or more men were dying a week, nearly half of my outfit. I didn't ask for it but I had to survive and take care of my men," Brinkofski said.
His involvement in the VFW is a way for him to help returning veterans receive good treatment.
The Tribute to Heroes parade on Main Street will feature more than 40 businesses, community and nonprofit organizations walking and on floats. Participants include the Lakewood Ranch High School Marching Band, Rowlett Magnet Elementary School Chorus and Drum Core, Braden River Pipers, East Manatee Fire Rescue District and the Florida Forest Service.
Festivities will continue after the parade with live music, face painting, refreshments and vendor booths. Overflow parking will be available at the Lakewood Ranch Medical Center on Lakewood Ranch Boulevard.
Proceeds benefit Manasota Operation Troop Support serving military troops deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait with ties to Manatee and Sarasota counties.
Those interested in being a part of the parade procession and/or children wishing to take part in the pre-parade Children's Decorating Bike Contest for the cutest, most-patriotic and most creatively decorated bike, can register at: lwrcac.com/memorial-day-tribute=to=heroes/.
Kathryn Moschella, Lakewood Ranch reporter can be reached at 941-745-7010. Follow her on Twitter @MoschellaHerald.