Paying tribute to the fallen in Punta Gorda

Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Caleb Waller sits next to his grandfather's plaque during a Memorial Day Ceremony at Laisley Park on Monday.
Caleb Waller sits next to his grandfather’s plaque during a Memorial Day Ceremony at Laisley Park on Monday.

PUNTA GORDA — Every person in attendance had a story; it didn’t matter how young or old they were.

Caleb Waller, 5, of Bradenton, came to Laishley Park on Monday with his mother, Kristen Waller, and grandmother, Vikki Carpenter, of Punta Gorda, for the Memorial Day ceremony and to visit a plaque in the park that was recently dedicated to his grandfather, whom Caleb lovingly referred to as ‘Grandpa Salute.’

Carpenter said Caleb’s grandfather, Col. Paul Vnencak, served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He received the Purple Heart for his service in Korea. He died in 2012.

‘Caleb calls him ‘Grandpa Salute’ because he never learned to pronounce his last name and they would always salute each other,’ said Carpenter.

When asked why he thought it was important to remember the fallen veterans, Caleb said because they ‘protected the country so we can be safe and free.’

Hundreds of people attended the event. Some were veterans themselves, some had family members who served, and some just came to show their appreciation.

‘There are a lot of stories here,’ said Richard Vogel, who has four grandsons in different branches of the military.

The ceremony opened with a prayer, the Vietnam Veterans of America presented the colors, Celene Galvan belted out the national anthem, and the American Legion Post 110 fired a gun salute.

One of the speakers, Bill ‘Buff’ Martin, said, ‘Today is not about the living. Today we honor the fallen, those who died to keep this country free.’

Many of the same people who were at the Laishley Park service hurried over to Fishermen’s Village for another memorial service at noon. The service featured singer Marcella Brown and the Punta Gorda Police Department Honor Guard, along with many other military speakers and groups.

‘It’s a tremendous turnout,’ said Kim Lovejoy, executive director of the Military Heritage Museum. ‘Every seat in the house is full.’

Charlotte County Commission Chairman Christopher Constance said Memorial Day should be a time of contemplation, not celebration.

‘It’s a time when we should ask ourselves where we would be if these people hadn’t done what they did.’

Constance was referring to veterans like Phillip Lockwood, 89, of Port Charlotte, who was at Omaha Beach on D-Day, when Allied troops stormed the beaches at Normandy.

‘When they opened the front of the landing craft for us to attack, a wall of machine gun fire met the troops, demolishing them,’ he said. ‘I decided I would go off the side of the craft, to avoid being killed.’

Lockwood said he lost everything he had, his gun, his helmet and his ammunition. However, when he got to the beach, there were so many dead bodies that he was able to grab everything he needed from the fallen.

‘It’s something I will never forget,’ he said. ‘I never saw many of the men I had come there with again.’

The ceremony concluded with several members singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to a 94-year-old WWII hero, Jules Gervan. Gervan had a smile from ear to ear after the song was over.

Everyone in attendance was invited to the Military Heritage Museum for a reception and cake.

‘The pieces are going to have to be very small,’ Lovejoy said. ‘We weren’t expecting this many people, but we are grateful for everyone who attended and most of all, we are grateful for our veterans.’

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