As the 50-vehicle red, white and blue parade of cars, trucks, minivans and campers wound its way — twice — around a circular drive at the Baldomero Lopez State Veterans Nursing Home, the sight that stood out most was the group of surprised and delighted spectators.
Forty residents from the 120-bed facility — who served in American wars dating back to the Korean Conflict —had been wheeled outside for their most significant fresh-air time since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March.
They were socially distanced and wore masks.
They also waved American flags. They smiled. They cheered and applauded. Some teared up a bit.
It was a Veterans Day celebration — two days late — that was appreciated and treasured.
The event was conceived by Honor Flight of West Central Florida, a nonprofit agency that flies military veterans to Washington and honors their service.
Many elderly veterans can’t make that trip, so an “Honor Flight at Home’’ was planned, complete with a speaker from MacDill Air Force Base, shirts, hats, a clap-out parade and a redistribution of the medals earned during military service.
Those plans were canceled by the virus. The nursing-home lockdown lasted through the summer and still remains strict for safety purposes.
Veterans Day brought another opportunity — and some creativity.
The drive-by parade, which was staged and organized about a mile away at the First United Methodist Church, included the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, the Pasco County Fire Department, Mission Barbecue, the Rough Riders, the Santa Drill Team, Operation Patriot and private citizens.
“It was wonderful,’’ said Johanna Snee, activities director at the Baldomero Lopez facility. “It’s definitely a boost. It gave our residents a little bit of normalcy.’’
Or, as one of the drive-by banners read: “You Are Not Forgotten!’’
April Currie, Honor Flight president, said her group has taken 40 flights to Washington with approximately 3,000 veterans. The “Honor Flight at Home’’ program has honored nearly 600 more veterans.
Given the virus and safety stipulations, Currie said she was delighted to see great participation in the drive-by ceremony for the Baldomero Lopez facility veterans.
“We tried to make it a big surprise and everyone was told, ‘Let’s go outside and enjoy the weather,’ ‘’ Currie said. “We really cannot do enough for our veterans. We want them to know we love them, we respect them and we appreciate them. We feel like we got those messages across, even though the health circumstances dictated us doing things a little differently than we originally planned.’’
It was just fine for Sharon Richmond, a member of Operation Patriot, a nonprofit group of former and current employees with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
“Our purpose is to help the veterans and if they have a need that the VA can’t pay for, they often turn to us,’’ Richmond said. “Honoring the veterans with this parade was awesome. It was beyond my imagination. I’m so grateful because I was up here two or three times a week before the lockdown and I’m so happy they get recognized like this.’’
Richmond said she visited one of her veteran friends during the lockdown, but she could only come up to his window.
“He’s legally blind and hard of hearing and I couldn’t hear what he was saying either,’’ Richmond said. “He put his hand up to the glass and he wanted me to put my hand up to the glass. Then I cried all the way home.
“Just being here means so much. It’s our way of letting them know they are important and they are not forgotten.’’
The Santa Drill Team — a group of holiday Santa Clauses that honors veterans — added to the memories by displaying the flags from all military branches and the American flag on the rear of its truck.
“It’s more of an honor for us than it is for them,’’ said Pam Smith, of the Santa Drill Team. “It gives me goosebumps. We need to do more events like this. It’s so special and so meaningful. These veterans mean so much to our country, and we’re proud to honor them.’’
By Joey Johnston
Published November 18, 2020