Cemetery planning shrine to services

The site of the proposed Freedom Memorial Plaza at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell.

Tony Kamus’ poor eyesight kept him from his ambition of becoming an Army aviator, but he has a clear vision for honoring veterans at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. Kamus, of the Village of Buttonwood, is chairman of the cemetery’s Joint Veterans Services Committee, originally formed to improve memorial services at the cemetery, then reorganized in 2018 and charged with the added responsibility of developing a monument area befitting the second-largest veterans cemetery in the nation. Plans for Freedom Memorial Plaza, which includes a proposed centerpiece monument of a military funeral surrounded by 14 more monuments, including a 470-foot-long Defenders of Freedom Wall, are now taking shape.

Cemetery Director Tony Thomas said the committee is very active in the effort to erect monuments that properly convey what Florida National means to the state of Florida. Thomas, a 21-year veteran of the Marines, added it is an ambitious long-term project of possibly 15 to 20 years.

The project will consist of multiple phases, and the projection of 15 to 20 years is based on the estimated fundraising and approval times for each monument.

The proposed area earmarked for the project is located at the entrance to the cemetery in front of Columbaria One, which will be immediately visible to visitors.

“They’re looking at putting up to 14 monuments to different military services, different war periods and groups of individuals that have contributed to the freedom of the nation,” Thomas said.

The proposed centerpiece monument of the Florida National Freedom Memorial Plaza is a bronze statue of two military personnel conducting the flag-folding ceremony over a veteran’s casket, surrounded by granite columns honoring each of the nation’s military branches of service.

“This piece illustrates the military honors funeral,” said committee member Bob Hill, of the Village of Gilchrist. “It’s something every veteran is guaranteed, and deserves.”

The Defenders of Freedom Wall, proposed to be applied to the 470-foot wall that currently backs Columbaria One, will consist of images etched onto 6-foot segments of black granite.

“The concept is to start with the Revolutionary War and go up through all of the defenses of freedom,” said Doug Gardner, chairman of the monument subcommittee and Vietnam veteran.

The rollout of the vision for the project is scheduled to be presented at 3 p.m. Aug. 28 at Eisenhower Recreation Center, 3560 Buena Vista Blvd. The public is invited to attend, and the committee has invited 125 government officials, local veterans organizations and cemetery representatives.

Staff representatives for both U.S. senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, both R-Fla., are confirmed to attend, Gardner said. State Senator Dennis Baxley also will attend.

“The purpose of the rollout is to get the community involved and let them know they can participate,” Gardner said.

After evaluating existing monuments at Sarasota National Cemetery in Sarasota, and Riverside National Cemetery in Riverside, California, the committee developed a conceptual plan and has done some preliminary cost estimates that put the projected cost at $10 million.

Cemetery staff members are prohibited from soliciting funds for such projects, and Thomas said the support committee will be doing all the fundraising and development of the concepts for each memorial, working with veterans from each era. Once the conceptual plan is completed, it will be submitted to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for approval and adjustments, where appropriate.

“Riverside and Sarasota National Cemeteries have monuments,” Gardner said. “We don’t, and that bothers us.”

Gardner said the Sarasota cemetery has a $14 million monument area that includes an amphitheater that was provided by one donor.

“We’ve formed a (nonprofit organization) and are ready to start raising funds,” Gardner said. “We’re excited about sharing this information with the public and veterans.”

 Coincidentally, members of the local Daughters of the American Revolution chapter were interested in erecting a monument and contacted Gardner. They now have a seat on the committee.

The Joint Veterans Services Committee has 24 members from Tampa and areas to the north, including Citrus, Lake and Sumter counties, with a large concentration of Villages veterans. 

Florida National is the largest veteran cemetery in the state, and one of the busiest with 35 burials per day. The lack of appropriate monuments at the cemetery is a shortcoming the committee noticed and brought to the attention of cemetery management.

Currently, preparation for a recently approved construction project is underway at the cemetery, as staff are gearing up for a 47-acre expansion that will take place over a two-year period. The first phase of that project, beginning in December, will be a columbarium with 22,000 niches to hold the ashes of veterans.

Thomas said his work at the cemetery is an opportunity to touch the lives of veterans and their families at a very emotional time.

“What greater way to pay tribute to my fellow brothers in arms than taking care of them at the hour of their greatest need, when they need somebody that really understands — a veteran,” Thomas said.

He sees the monument project as a critical element that is missing in the total package for honoring veterans.

“We have a large number of veterans organizations that are dedicated to the cemetery and developing this project,” Thomas said. “I’m in awe of the work they’ve put in to get us to this point. It’s a great project.”

Staff writer Frank Ross can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5367 or frank.ross@thevillagesmedia.com.