Joe Henderson: Florida National Cemetery, so often passed by, can take a visitor's breath away

The Florida National Cemetery, just an hour north of Tampa, can give you a renewed respect for life and the sacrifices made by veterans and their families. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times (2012)]
The Florida National Cemetery, just an hour north of Tampa, can give you a renewed respect for life and the sacrifices made by veterans and their families. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times (2012)]
Published October 4

Exit 309 off Interstate 75 in Bushnell is about an an hour north of Tampa, and I have driven by it many more times than anyone can count, past the sign pointing to the Florida National Cemetery.

Never paid much attention to it, to tell you the truth. I mean, who wants to go to a cemetery before you have to?

Plenty of people have said how beautiful and serene it is there, tucked a short hop off the highway amid the rolling hills of the Withlacoochee State Forest. People say a visit can give you a renewed respect for life and the sacrifices veterans and their families made for this country. As I learned Monday, they are correct.

The cemetery is breathtaking in its simplicity but overwhelming at the same time. Row after row of white headstones stretches over the 517-acre site, with plans to expand. It reminds everyone that we’re in this together.

I was there with immediate family members to say goodbye to Grace Patterson, my wife’s mother. She was 90 when she died on Sept. 17, having never quite recovered from surgery to repair a broken hip.

Her husband, Gerald Patterson, served honorably in the U.S. Navy during World War II and Korea. He is 93 and still with us. A benefit from his military service is a guaranteed spot in one of our national cemeteries. As his wife, Grace could go there too.

Her formal funeral was last Saturday. On Monday, we brought the urn carrying her ashes to be interred in a grave with a headstone. Honestly, everyone was worn out and we all just wanted to get through this, but that changed when we arrived and prepared to let Grace go for good.

They are extremely well organized at the cemetery, which helped a lot.

We were given an 11:30 a.m. appointment for a 30-minute slot. You check in and are given a lane number for your car. Later, an escort from the cemetery will lead you to a committal shelter where you can say your last goodbye. It is respectful and discreet.

Before that, though, we went to the visitor’s center, where a volunteer told us the facility handles about 7,000 final services each year. An estimated 130,000 people are interred there, including Leonard T. "Max" Schroeder Jr., who as a 25-year-old captain in World War II was the first American to come ashore at Normandy on D-Day.

Mike Holovak, who was the skipper of a PT boat credited with sinking nine Japanese ships during World War II and later coached football for many years in college and the NFL, rests there.

Three medal of honor recipients are there.

But mostly, what you see on the headstones are stories of gallantry by people known only to their family and friends. They speak to devoted wives and mothers who kept families together while their husbands were overseas.

Grace Patterson was one of these.

As we were wrapping up our brief farewell to her, our escort said we were free to bring flowers by any day of the year as long as the cemetery was open, but cautioned, “The deer come out at night and eat them.”

Somehow, I think Grace would like to know she’s in a place of serenity and nature, and if some of the native wildlife want to stop by for a visit and snack, well, that’s OK.

It’s healthy to be reminded of the sacrifices people made so that a nation could endure. Our guide said to come back anytime and just walk around, and I will do that because a place of peace and beauty lies just to the west off exit 309 and it’s worth slowing down to take a look.

I heard about it before, but now I really understand.

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