Reunions draw vets to The Villages

Steve Reinkemeyer, left, of Key West, the youngest member to attend the Navy Medical Service Corps reunion, cuts a cake with Don Schoenmann, of Cocoa, the oldest member, during a gathering at the Waterfront Inn.

When any military organization starts thinking about a reunion, it has to consider The Villages. The community has one of largest percentages of U.S. veterans found outside of places that are home to military bases. Nearly 19,000 veterans live here, comprising 16% of the population in the The Villages’ metropolitan statistical area. One in every six residents has served his or her country. Because of that pool of veteran residents and a whole host of appealing amenities, The Villages is becoming a popular military reunion destination. In fact, six military reunions were scheduled for this year. And the year has been especially busy for the staff at the Waterfront Inn at Lake Sumter Landing.

The Merchant Marine held a convention for three days in May at the lakeside hotel. And over the Sept. 13 weekend, it hosted two military reunion events.

The Medical Services Corps, a Navy organization of about 100 members, gathered to celebrate its history managing military hospitals, and an organization identified as the Army Super Group gathered at the same time.

Lloyd and Martha Thornton, of the Village of Winifred, organized the Super Group reunion. They were assisted with the event by co-hosts Jack and Bonnie Bonniwell, of the Village of Dunedin.

The group has a reunion every two years in a different U.S. location. Its first reunion was in Baltimore in 1987; the event has been held in several locations in Florida since.

“Back in the 1950s when the unit was born, we were about 1,000 strong,” Lloyd said. “Our Army unit was retired in the late ’70s and today, unfortunately, we’re down to a few hundred.”

About 100 attended the reunion from Sept. 11-15.

They went on tours during the day, then enjoyed entertainment and a banquet Saturday. 

“We have a business meeting after the banquet and members vote on the next location,” Martha said. “Anyone who wants to do the work makes a presentation, and we volunteered to do it.”

Retired Lt. Cmdr. Don Deliz, organized the reunions for retired members of the Medical Service Corps, which has been holding its annual events at The Waterfront since 2014. This year’s event ran from Sept. 12-14.

Deliz, of the Village of Tamarind Grove, said his group of retired Naval hospital administrators has held reunions in Jacksonville and Pensacola, but his members prefer The Villages.

“We’ve had it here so many times,” Deliz said. “For me, it’s like using a cookie cutter for the setup. I call the golf pro, call the hotel, set up a tour for those who don’t golf, call Scooter (the DJ), and I’m done.”

Deliz said Scooter the DJ, who performs for the gathering, is a big hit, and the visiting veterans like the convenience of having the square and restaurants within walking distance.

“Here they can rent a golf cart and explore on their own,” Deliz said. “In a city, you’re kind of stuck in a hotel. ... Meeting here in The Villages is a really big deal for our members. They love it here.”

The Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association of Florida held its annual reunion Sept. 25-28 at the lakeside hotel. The organization has a membership of around 400 veterans.

Two new members of the Distinguished Flying Cross Society were involved in bringing the statewide VHPAF to The Villages. Gary Spooner, of Mount Dora, flew Huey helicopters in Charlie troop of the 7th Squadron 17th Air Cavalry, while Barry Speare, of the Village of Poinciana, flew the OH-6 Loach in that same unit.

“We had our own Loach on display (at the reunion), and were excited about that,” Speare said. “I’ve been here 16 months, and the number of veterans in The Villages is one of the reasons I’m here.”

At the convention, four helicopter pilots who flew in the same unit in Vietnam were together again.

And, in addition to business meetings, Dr. Joe Pond performed with his steel drum band during a fish fry and pool party. Other activities included a trolley tour and golf for those who play.

Angela Patterson, Waterfront Inn sales manager, said the hotel averages about six military reunions per calendar year. Retired military is one of her target markets.

“All of these events have similar needs,” Patterson said. “They have cocktail functions, a meet and greet, a big banquet, dancing, pool parties. These are important events for us.”

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