LEESBURG – If there are three words that strongly sum up the themes behind the event being held on Saturday in downtown Leesburg, Rachel O’Ryan said, it’s patriotism, honor, and tribute.
”It’s for those who are currently in the armed forces,’’ she said.
This special day will be one when patriotism is fully on display, as this Lake County city hosts the Leesburg Armed Forces Day festivities on Saturday, May 19, an event that will honor those serving in the military and pay tribute to the sacrifice they’re making to serve, protect and defend their nation.
And there will be a lot to do, O’Ryan said, for those who attend.
”It’s a full day event,’’ she said. ”There will be vendors, and dedications.’’
The official Armed Forces Day celebration runs from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. in downtown Leesburg, and will have various events and ceremonies throughout the day at Fountain Lake Park at Towne Square Stage in the Leesburg Armory and along Main Street, where a Patriotic Parade is scheduled to take place.
The celebration is being organized by the Leesburg Partnership. The executive director, Joe Shipes, said the day long event is expected to draw large multi-generational crowds, as families gather to celebrate and honor those who are serving their country.
He encouraged anyone planning to attend to “bring a chair so they can enjoy all the festivities in comfort.”
O’Ryan, who is helping the city promote the event, said it would be would feature several unique highlights, including the traditional military-themed parade, the dedication of the Veterans Memorial, and the first appearance in Florida of Rolling Thunder’s “Flame of Freedom” on its annual cross-country pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. for Memorial Day.
”There will be a Rolling Thunder performance, and the Flame of Freedom has never been in Florida,’’ she said. ”’It’s to light the way home for those who have not made it home yet. There is also going to be speeches by some prisoners of war.’’
The Leesburg’s Armed Forces Day Parade starts at 10 a.m., beginning at 9th Street and winding up at Fountain Lake Park across from Leesburg City Hall. Along the way, the parade will feature 35 marching and military units.
At noon, the Veterans Memorial at Fountain Lake Park — this is a 2,800-square-foot lighted Memorial, 60 feet in diameter and 7-feet high — will be dedicated during an hour-long ceremony. It already contains the names of more than 7,500 veterans on its granite walls, and all vets — living or deceased, with honorable discharges — from Lake, Sumter and Marion counties and The Villages community are eligible to be included.
”They are always looking for more names to add on,’’ O’Ryan said. Individuals and organizations can purchase a brick with an inscription of their choice for $60.
It took more than a year to build the Memorial, done by an all-volunteer non-profit corporation. A lot of the work, including the architecture, electrical and landscaping, was donated by area professionals.
“It has been a labor of love by many people,” says the Memorial’s executive director, Donald Van Beck, a veteran of World War II and Korea. “While it has cost about $300,000, it would have been $525,000 without the donated work.”
Van Beck said his team still needs to raise an additional $65,000 to cover expenses.
Joining the Veterans Memorial Dedication will be Rolling Thunder, a national organization whose goal is to provide information about and support for American prisoners of war (POWs) and those missing in action (MIAs).
A cavalcade that includes motorcyclists will arrive in Leesburg for the dedication ceremony, carrying the organization’s “Flame of Freedom,” an Olympic-style torch that tours the nation.
Rolling Thunder’s Florida state director, Jim Moyer, said it serves as a “symbol of hope, a light to help POWs and MIAs find their way home.”
The Flame is scheduled to travel to Leesburg from Columbus, Georgia, on Friday, then continue on from Leesburg to Washington for a candlelight vigil during the group’s 25th annual Ride for Freedom events on Memorial Day weekend.
Dozens of bikers plan to escort the torch to Leesburg from the Georgia line.
Throughout the day on Saturday, Rolling Thunder chapters — including local area Chapter 6 — will have tents in the Leesburg Towne Square, where former POWs and other veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East wars will talk about their personal histories.
At 2 p.m., Rolling Thunder chapter officers will present a “Missing Man Table Ceremony” in the Towne Square. At this time, the Flame of Freedom will be delivered to a table with six empty chairs symbolizing missing men and women from each of the five services – Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard – and civilians.
Rolling Thunder will also offer free screenings of its newly released video production, “Stolen Freedom,” at the Leesburg National Guard Armory at 400 W. Meadow St.
“Our focus is to educate the public about the POW/MIA situation,’’ Moyer said. ‘’We want to open peoples’ eyes, and participation is open to everyone who cares.”
Throughout Armed Forces Day, other veterans’ groups will have informational booths in Towne Square. Special arrangements have been made for those with physical disabilities and limitations, Shipes said, including handicap permitted parking, golf cart shuttle service between the venues, and special seating for those in need.
“It’s important to have arrangements at this very special event for individuals with needs so they can comfortably enjoy and participate,” Shipes said.
Handicap permitted parking will be available at 501 W Meadow St. in downtown Leesburg, accessible from Third and Meadow streets across from the Leesburg Armory.
Golf Cart shuttle services between Fountain Lake Park and Towne Square will be available between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
There is also special seating available for the Rolling Thunder Presentation and Veterans Memorial dedication ceremony at Fountain Lake Park.
To learn more, log on to ArmedForcesDay.leesburgpartnership.com. For more information on the Veteran’s Memorial at Fountain Park, visit www.lakeveterans.com, or call 352-314-2100.