LAKEWOOD RANCH -- A veteran can usually spot a veteran at a Memorial Day parade.
"They are the ones wearing an old hat that has their their ship or branch of service or last duty station," said U.S. Air Force veteran C.J. Bannister moments after viewing the sixth annual Tribute to Heroes Memorial Day Parade on Main Street in Lakewood Ranch Sunday. "You can also tell by their eyes. They will usually be showing deep pride and a humble attitude."
Bannister helps veterans every day as the director of Veteran's Services for Goodwill Manasota. She and some of her Goodwill teammates marched in the Lakewood Ranch parade, which drew 3,000 children, adults, locals and visitors to honor the memory of people who died while serving in America's armed forces.
Although dark clouds were everywhere, the skies ultimately refused to let any rain fall on this parade of 53 entries.
Bannister cried moments after the 45-minute procession was over when she tried to talk about what Memorial Day means to her.
"At 5 p.m. last Friday, a Marine walked into my office and said, 'I served six tours of duty, and I can't find a job, and I can't feed my family,'" Bannister said. "We dropped everything to help him. We try to wrap our arms around them. I get so teary when I talk about my veterans. I'm passionate about what we
do for them."
Bannister's emotions were stoked by sweet, emotional Memorial Day weekend moments such as these:
Charles Dunfee, 80, wore his old dress uniform from his career in the U.S. Army and sat on Main Street with his family. Dunfee, whose grandson Travis Scheuer is managing partner of Cutting Loose Salon in Lakewood Ranch, served in Korea and Vietnam and said he would serve again right now if Uncle Sam would take him.
"I feel deep pride right now," Dunfee said as he watched the parade.
In 1966, Dunfee wrote a letter to his hometown newspaper in Colorado from Vietnam and in the letter said that he had volunteered and was still proud to serve his country there. The letter was so unique that, according to Dunfee, it was entered into the U.S. Congressional Record.
When he was 65, Dunfee tried to re-enlist to fight the Gulf War, but he was turned down, to his dismay.
"He would have gotten on that bus," said his wife, Amy.
The 40-strong Rowlett Academy for Arts and Communication chorus, led by music teacher Cathy Noeth, sang "The Armed Forces Medley" with such spirit that the crowd roared when they were done. This stellar chorus also performed a rousing, "This Land is Your Land."
Rowlett's 15-member drum line was also a crowd-pleaser.
Mote Marine was new to the parade and offered a display trailer filled with live sea creatures.
Sarasota Dove Release created a memorable image as more than a dozen white homing birds raced together through the pink sky.
Lakewood Ranch Dental, Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance and the Shriners in their miniature cars all kept children of all ages leaping for candy and beads.
The Lakewood Ranch High School Marching Band, looking sharp in black T-shirts, made a nice contrast to the Braden River Pipers and their classic bagpipe sounds.
U.S. Congressman Vern Buchanan and Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh both seemed like they had practiced throwing goodies from their convertibles.
The Hernando DeSoto float-ship awed the children in the crowd.
Bannister works with 500 veterans from Manatee and Sarasota counties who come to her needing help getting back on their feet after serving their country.
"We give them emergency assistance, like food and shelter, as well as career assistance to help them get employment," Bannister said. "It's hard for a bomb technical in the service to know what civilian career that might translate to. That's where we come in."
Any veteran who needs help with a job, food or shelter is urged to call Goodwill Manasota's Veteran Assistance at 941-355-2721, ext. 451.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.