Winter Park veterans recall memories and sacrifice

Retired Lt. Col. Earle Denton at Winter Park's Veterans Day celebration Nov. 9.

Retired Lt. Col. Earle Denton at Winter Park's Veterans Day celebration Nov. 9.

Isaac Babcock

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Forty feet up a fire truck ladder, a flag swayed in the breeze as a stage below filled with glinting brass horns and pressed black and blue suits. The ambiguously festive musical prelude that had played half the crowd into their seats faded into the background of a casual Friday morning in Shady Park a few feet away.

It could have been a swearing-in ceremony, as half a dozen Winter Park city officials gathered with priests and pastors just three days after Election Day.

But there was no mistaking the man in the green combat uniform who sat, surrounded but seemingly alone, waiting a few feet from a microphone and a podium. In the sea of bare heads coiffed with political precision, the camouflage print of his hat gave him none. Nor did his silence against a din of chattering reunions as the clock ticked toward 10 a.m.

Alone in that moment, 40-year-old Staff Sgt. Hector Bonilla quietly said hello to an old friend.

As Rev. Mitchell Dawkins gave a booming thanks to veterans who had fought in battle, as Rollins College professor Keith Bolves sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” into the trees, as the crowd rose to salute a parade of flying colors, the soldier silently shouldered a burden no one could see.

“Our debt to them can never be repaid, for there is no price to be placed on liberty,” Winter Park Mayor Ken Bradley read from “Salute.”

And then the crowd reflected on that intangible, crippling weight.

That didn’t escape Maj. Gen. Doug Metcalf only three days after a divisive national election, as he called for a return to civility at home and an end to the fight for soldiers abroad.

“Bring them home,” Metcalf said, laying his feelings bare about a war in Afghanistan he said we no longer had business fighting.

Though the former Winter Park city commissioner had long since retired from the Air Force, he said he’d never stopped thinking about the soldiers who never made it home, who couldn’t stand at a podium to hear cheers for their service, for their sacrifice.

Bonilla knew that feeling all too well, as he stepped wearily to the microphone and spoke the name of a friend whose face he hadn’t seen since that horrible day a little more than one year ago.

Sgt. Andy Morales would have turned 34 years old just before this Veterans Day. Five weeks before his 33rd birthday, he died in battle in Baghdad, Iraq, Sept. 22, 2011.

“It’s very important to reflect upon the sacrifices they’ve made,” Bonilla said. He’d seen those sacrifices personally in two tours of duty in Iraq before taking on a new duty as a Winter Park police officer.

On stage, he asked the crowd of 100 for a moment of silence. But when he tried to break that moment, it lingered. The paper in his hands shook. No words would come.

In that silence 82-year-old retired Lt. Col. Earle Denton, his eyes sheltered under a blue Korea and Vietnam Veteran cap, slowly nodded. The man in the combat uniform was no longer alone.

When Bradley spoke the final few words of “Salute,” as somber reverie gave way to joyful horns in timpani and the words of each branch’s song stirred happier memories, more soldiers, airmen and sailors stood. Camouflaged in suits and slacks and dresses, they rose in dozens, joining Bonilla on their feet as the crowd cheered.

After the ceremony fellow Winter Park Police Officer Edwin Santos, in his new uniform, walked up to the man in green and shook his hand and said thank you, from one soldier to another.

“We are citizens because of the sacrifices our veterans have made,” Santos said. “We can’t forget that.”

Most of the chairs empty, the brass band of VFW Post 2093 packed its horns. The man in the combat uniform and the man in the blue hat headed home. And the flag above still fluttered in the breeze.