Plant City Honors Veterans and Active-Duty Military Members at Luncheon – Plant City Observer

Plant City Observer
Plant City News and Real Estate
By Michelle Caceres
The annual event held at the TECO Expo Hall drew more than 500 guests.
In 2018 a small group of community members from the Elks Lodge partnered with the City of Plant City, the Greater Plant City Chamber of Commerce and Plant City Main Street to throw an inaugural picnic event for 250 local veterans to thank them for their selfless sacrifice to protect the freedoms we enjoy.
This year’s event, held last Sunday at the TECO Expo Hall at the Florida Strawberry Festival Grounds, featured an attendance of more than 500 guests who enjoyed a meal of pulled pork sandwiches, macaroni and cheese and coleslaw from The Wooden Spoon. Dairy Queen ice cream capped off the meal.
This year’s event was a cooperative effort between the Elks Lodge, Historic Plant City Main Street and the City of Plant City and was sponsored by dozens of local businesses. Two free tickets were given out to veterans and other tickets were sold for $10 each.
The program included presentations by Suncoast Credit Union service center manager Derek Yates, former Elks National President Mike Smith and keynote speaker Brian Moyer, legislative director of Military-Veterans Advocacy, Inc.
Event organizer and Elks district veterans services chairman Judy Wise, who began planning the event in August, is proud and humbled to be trusted with the task of executing an event of this magnitude. “I’m not kidding when I say that it’s a team effort to put on an event of this size,” she said. “We’ve got the best community around.”
Every event detail was thoughtfully planned, from the menu, program and patriotic decorations. Golf carts were donated to transport older veterans from the parking lot to the event building. Volunteers served veterans at their table who had trouble walking up to the food table.
Attendees included more than a dozen patients from James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital and residents of Liberty Manor, a charitable organization that provides housing for homeless veterans. When Wise was on stage welcoming the crowd, a couple of Liberty Manor veterans went onstage to thank her for the invitation to the event and to present her with a t-shirt and certificate. 
“It was all I could do not to cry in front of 500 people,” she said. “I was so humbled and thankful for them.”
Thankful is a word that best describes the sentiment from the veterans that attended the event. A few of those attendees are:
* Plant City resident Angel Valentin, who served in the U.S. Army for 30 years from 1974 – 2005. “I enlisted right after high school and always wanted to serve because I liked the structure of the military,” he said. “There’s a sacrifice that you make as a member of the Armed  Forces because you miss a lot of birthdays and Christmases.” His love of country made the sacrifice worth it. It was his first time attending the event. “I’m pretty impressed,” he said.
* Plant City resident Wayne Smith attended the event with his wife Faye. He served in the Army from 1968 – 1972 and was stationed in Vietnam for two of those years.
* Jack DeVane attended the event with his wife Dot. he was in the Army from 1955 – 1958. Four of his brothers also served in the Armed Forces. A grandson is in the Marines. “This is such a wonderful event,” he said.
* West Point Class of 1981 graduate Kathy Gambrell served in the Army for five years. Her husband Alan Gambrell served in the Army for 20 years.
*  Vietnam veteran and longtime Plant City resident Carlos Aponte, originally from Puerto Rico, was an active-duty military member for 20 years.
* Bill Graham served in the Air Force from 1961 – 1982. It’s his fourth time attending the event. “My favorite part is seeing veterans come together,” he said. “It’s good to see there’s a place to get together with fellow brethren who’ve served.”
* Plant City resident Kenneth Markham served in the Coast Guard from 1956 – 1959 as an anchor cranker. Sitting next to him at the event was his son, Blair Markham, who served 25 years active-duty in the Coast Guard and then another 14 years as a civilian employee. Blair’s son, Jack, is currently in his first year at the Coast Guard Academy. “My son is third generation Coast Guard,” said the proud father. “He couldn’t be here today because he’s busy doing push-ups.” It was Blair’s first time attending the event. “It makes me proud to be recognized for my service and to be here with so many other veterans,” he said. Blair looks back on his time in the service with many fond memories of his time spent working at land-based search and rescue stations. “I can look back on my career and know I made a difference,” he said. “There are people alive today that wouldn’t be if my team hadn’t gone out to save them.”
* Plant City resident Larry Kimbley served from 1988 – 2003 in the Navy and then as a doc in the Marine Corps.  He served during Desert Shield, Desert Storm, the Bosnian War, the Haitian Invasion and Iraq. He’s traveled to 32 countries. His military legacy includes great-great uncle, Francis Kimbley who served in the Revolutionary War, a great-great grandfather that served in World War I and grandfathers who fought in World War II and Korea. He attended the event with his wife Thania and 8-year-old son David. It was their first time attending the event. “I’d always hear about it after the fact but this year my wife got our tickets when she was at the library one day,” said Larry. “It’s nice to be here with other veterans.”
Past Elks national president Mike Smith said the organization’s goal is to serve our country’s veterans. “We recognize the heroes who gave us our freedoms,” he said. “We love and appreciate you and will always watch out for you.”
God bless the U.S.A., he said.
Filed Under: Neighbors
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