Emotions swell as ceremony honors families

Gold Star daughter Suzy Hunt, of Lithia, places her hand on the gold star during the unveiling of the Gold Star Families Memorial Monument on Wednesday at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell.

My father. My only child. My brother. One by one, Gold Star mothers, fathers, siblings and others say the names of the fallen and lay roses at the new Gold Star Families Memorial Monument. The monument, Florida National Cemetery’s first national monument, was dedicated Wednesday. Being part of a Gold Star family means being a member of a club that, in the words of Gold Star father and Villager Dominic Baragona, “nobody wants to belong to.” Baragona’s son, Army Lt. Colonel Rocky Baragona, was killed about 18 years ago.

The monument is meant to honor families like the Baragonas.

“You have no idea how much joy I feel today to see this coming into fruition, and I cannot see any better monument to be honored today in our first national monument than the Gold Star Families,” said Roberto Pizarro, the cemetery’s acting director, to those assembled.

The monument is the first in a long-term plan to build 14 monuments at Freedom Memorial Plaza. The Joint Veterans Support Committee, a 501c3 that supports the Bushnell cemetery, as well as the veterans and their families buried there, has made it its mission to raise funds for the plaza’s construction.

“Everyone is terribly excited, yet we’re extremely honored and privileged to be part of this,” said Bob Mills, the committee’s treasurer/director of communications and Village of LaBelle resident. “We worked hard. There were many people who came before us, and there will be a lot of people who come after us, because this is not a sprint, but a marathon.”

One of the members of the committee, James “Hammer” Hartsell, is also the executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs. During the ceremony, he read a proclamation from Gov. Ron DeSantis supporting Gold Star families.

Although not a Gold Star father, Hartsell said he understands losing an adult child. Hartsell’s middle son was born with muscular dystrophy and died three years ago.

Because his son was a fully incapacitated adult child, Hartsell was able to have him buried at Bushnell.

“This place is special to me,” Hartsell said. “It’s special to my wife and it’s special to my family.”

Hartsell was among speakers including Chad Graham; president and CEO of the Woody Williams Foundation, Matthew Quinn; Veterans Affairs under secretary for Memorial Affairs, and Congressman Daniel Webster.

Veterans are owed a debt that can never be repaid, Webster said.

“However, a monument like this, a ceremony like this, goes a long way in at least paying part of that debt,” he said.

As each speaker walked up to the podium, they stood in front of an audience that included several Gold Star family members.

“Clearly no one looks or wants to become a Gold Star family member, and nothing can undo the personal tragedy you have experienced,” Quinn said. “You gave America your sons, your daughters, your fathers and mothers, your siblings, your beloved family members.”

Local Gold Star Families

Florida National Cemetery is located about an hour from The Villages, where 1 in 6 residents have worn an Armed Forces uniform. The Villages and the surrounding area also are home to people whose family members in the service never made it home.

Now living in the Village of Chatham, Baragona said that, when his son was in high school, he heard a West Point recruiter give a speech. When he came home, he said he wanted to go.

Rocky, the middle of seven children, graduated West Point in 1982 and went into the Army. Rocky went on to serve in Iraq as a battalion commander.

When his time ended, he decided to stay for another day to welcome the new battalion commander and show him the ropes, Dominic said. That night, he talked on the phone with his father.

“The next morning here comes two people to tell us he died,” said Vilma Baragona, his mother.

Rocky had been on the road between Iraq and Kuwait when the driver of an 18-wheel tractor-trailer lost control. The tractor-trailer crashed into Rocky’s side of the Jeep.

“It’s hard, it’s really hard losing children, especially sudden like that,” Dominic Baragona said.

Carol Sue Deliere, of Oxford, also lost her son. Known as “Mission Mike” at the Naval Academy, Lt. John “Mike” Yandell  was a “very singularly focused young man,” she said. 

While she’s not sure where the nickname came from, she does know that, when he thought about his future, he was set on the academy.

“He didn’t waver from his desire,” Deliere said. “We had a hard time getting him to apply to other places.”

After graduation, Yandell flew planes as a test pilot out of Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Washington. He and his friend were testing a plane on July 15, 1986, when dirt got into a fuel line. That began a chain reaction that ended in a crash. He was only 28.

“The hole is still in my heart,” Deliere said.

Honoring Gold Star Families

The monument unveiled on Wednesday faces the cemetery’s entrance. Everyone who comes in will be greeted by the silhouette of a saluting serviceman, and a gold star.

“What a perfect place for this tribute that will stand in perpetuity to honor, recognize and serve our Gold Star families and carry on that legacy of your loved ones,” Graham said.

The monument was created with help from the Woody Williams Foundation, named for Hershel “Woody” Williams, Graham’s grandfather and the last surviving World War II Medal of Honor recipient. The foundation, which promotes building Gold Star memorials, provided the design.

The back of the monument has four panels unique to the cemetery’s monument. The panels portray themes using images including Seminole leader Osceola, for homeland, a presentation of a folded American flag for family, the flag raising at Iwo Jima for patriot, and tombstones for sacrifice.

Both sides show the serviceman’s silhouette.

Shortly after Graham spoke, Gold Star family members walked to the monument to lay roses, and say their loved ones’ names.

 One name was that of Marine First Lt. Michael Wilkes. His sister, Melissa Wilkes, said her big brother’s passion for flight led him to join the military out of college. 

He was based in North Carolina, but, in May 1989, he was in southern France as part of a joint training exercise, said Melissa, whose husband, Tony Kamus, is the Joint Veterans Support Committee’s  chairman. 

On May 3, he was doing a night maneuver. His helicopter hit a high-tension wire and fell about 200 feet before crashing. All five Marines onboard died.

His family was told the news over the phone, and later visited by the local chaplain.

“We were still hopeful over the evening that they misidentified him, and that it was not him in the accident,” said Melissa, of the Village of Buttonwood. “But it was made real when they came to the door.”

Another name was that of Army Warrant Officer Gerald Spradlin, who was killed in 1972. The 19-year-old was an only child.

When his father died and was buried at Bushnell, his mother, Anna Spradlin of Sun City, had her son moved to the cemetery.

When she dies, she says she’s going to be buried next to them.

Specialty Editor Leah Schwarting can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5375, or leah.schwarting@thevillagesmedia.com.