755 Eighth Avenue South, Naples, FL
NAPLES — It was a sunny, windless morning and the 12,714 miniature American flags hung motionless in the dappled oak tree shade in front of Cambier Park’s white band shell.
Naples resident Tracey Sanders said the morning quiet and the neat rows of flags reminded her of the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery.
“I love it, I love the flags,” said Sanders. “It almost feels like the burial grounds, the way they have it set up.”
Planted by 15 volunteers, each of the flags represented an armed service member from southern Florida who has fought in Iraq or Afghanistan since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“They’ve been through a lot and they’ll go through a lot, trying to re-enter work life or even find employment,” said Sanders. “I think it’s important that we recognize the sacrifice they did and are still doing.”
The volunteers began their work at 6:30 a.m. By 10:30 a.m. a small crowd of 20 had gathered for a service honoring the service members, many who will return to their homeland by the end of the year.
“Each flag doesn’t just represent a soldier, it represents a family,” said Marnie Waldrop, co-founder of Camaraderie Foundation, which organized the event with help from sponsor Fifth Third Bank. “There’s 44,000 soldiers coming home soon, and the need to embrace them is great.”
The Orlando-based Camaraderie Foundation matches military families with private counselors to alleviate the stress associated with a service member’s transition from the battlefield to society.
A similar event was held in Orlando on Nov. 8 and events are also scheduled for Tampa and Jacksonville.
“Florida is the third largest state in terms of veterans and active duty soldiers,” said Waldrop. “It’s important that we come together as a community for them, and try to change the stigma associated with seeking help.”
During Thursday’s service, Naples Vice-Mayor John Sorey related his own experience returning from the war in Vietnam.
“There’s nothing like it,” he said. “Civilian friends cannot understand the difference between any other experience in life and combat.”
Ellie Mae Wood, a Community School student who turned 11 on 11/11/11, presented a check to the foundation.
She asked friends and relatives to donate money to the organization in lieu of giving her birthday gifts and raised $900.
Waldrop and her husband Michael founded the Camaraderie Foundation after undergoing counseling when Michael returned from the war in Afghanistan.
“We didn’t want to become a statistic,” said Marnie Waldrop. “Of the 24 troops in his unit, six are now divorced and two more are getting divorced. To work our way back together as a married couple so we could raise our two kids, it was hard.”
Waldrop said the nation is poorly prepared to meet the needs of troops who have been deployed overseas multiple times over the past decade.
“We are not equipped for their return, not at all,” she said. “So many are coming home and they will struggle to find jobs in this economy. There is a huge need.”
Army veteran Brent Smith, an employee of Fifth Third Bank, said the small service was moving.
“It was impressive, outstanding, I’m glad to be here to witness it,” said Smith. “It was heartbreaking when (Waldrop) spoke. The most special person in the world is a military wife.”