U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, enjoys a laugh with a group of WW II and Korean War vets at the ceremony.
DUNEDIN – U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, a longtime proponent of veterans’ rights and causes, recently spoke at a special ceremony at the Dunedin VFW Post 2550 honoring World War II and Korean War vets.
The Aug. 29 event saw dozens of veterans from every service branch, as well as city officials including Dunedin Commissioner Deborah Kynes, pack the Douglas Avenue facility to listen to the four-term Congressman, who began his speech by telling the audience how much their service means to him.
“I want you to know that you are my top priority in the United States Congress,” Bilirakis, who was first elected in 2006 and serves as the vice chairman of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said. “You are our top priority. You are our heroes. Not our athletes, certainly not our movie stars, and most certainly not our politicians. You are the guys and gals that got it done for our country. … We’re here to serve you, and please don’t hesitate to contact our office.”
Bilirakis went on to explain to the group how he continues to fight for veterans’ rights, and he stressed how important these military heroes are to the country.
“The World War II vets are the greatest generation. I love to sit down with you and hear your stories,” he said, noting by 2020 there will be approximately 200,000 WWII veterans alive. “Our young people need to know what you did for us. They need to know, again, that you are the true heroes. So, God bless you, and I always will be there fighting on your behalf.”
Following the speech, Bilirakis, along with VFW Auxiliary Post president Carole Ann Medeiro, presented certificates to each of the veterans in attendance.
As Bilirakis read the names out, he walked over to each recipient and asked them to share their thoughts on their service.
While some vets were reluctant to speak, others related tales of being at the Battle of the Bulge and other snapshots of what life was like serving in the military in the late 1930s to the mid-1940s. Others wanted to know how Bilirakis’ father, Michael, who spent 24 years in Congress, was doing.
“My dad’s doing very well, thank you for asking,” he responded, noting he and his father are chairing the Veterans Legacies Archives at St. Petersburg College.
After the certificates were handed out, recordings of all the service branch anthems were supposed to be played, but a technical problem with the audio equipment forced some improvisation, with WWII and Korean War vet Cliff Zalay of Oldsmar stepping in to play the themes on his harmonica.
“I’ve been playing the harmonica ever since my days in the military,” Zalay, an Oldsmar resident and Army veteran, said about his impromptu performance afterwards. “When they had problems with the audio and asked if anyone could help out, I knew I had to step in.”
Zalay, who along with being at the Battle of the Bulge has played the national anthem in venues including Tropicana Field, said the recognition they received today meant a lot to him.
“It was super. Gus is super,” the 94-year-old said. “It was an honor to talk about our service with a representative of the House of Representatives.”
VFW Post officials were equally impressed with the event.
“We were very honored to have Congressman Bilirakis here,” Post 2550 house committee member Frank Vanore said. “We all know what he does for veterans in Washington, D.C. He lives up to his promises and he keeps his word. We need more people like him, and for him to come to this post to do this was an honor.”
According to Bilirakis, the honor was all his.
“I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed this,” he said after the two-hour ceremony. “It’s a tremendous honor for me to make those presentations. I don’t know if I deserve it, but I surely enjoyed it.”
The Congressman went on to explain how important he feels it is to honor the legacies, and listen to the memories, of these veterans in particular.
“They have so many stories, they’re like walking encyclopedias,” he said. “That’s why my dad, and I guess I’m the honorary chair of these archives at SPC, so that we give them the opportunity to tell their stories on camera, or put it in writing. It’s important for our kids to learn what they sacrificed because as I said, they are our true heroes.”