Pebble Creek resident Wayne Rich and his daughter at the 2019 Gasparilla parade as part of Ye Special Forces Krewe on Tampa Bay, representing the Special Forces Association.

A short drive north of Pebble Creek in New Tampa, where retired U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Wayne Rich lives, his father, mother and wife are all buried at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell.

Averaging 7,000 burials a year — about 30 each day — Florida National Cemetery is the second most active cemetery in the U.S.

When Wayne arrives after the 45-minute drive up I-75, he takes in the rows upon rows of gravestones, sprawling across 600 acres. It’s hardly possible to view the markers for all 130,000 people who are laid to rest there.

At certain times of the year, volunteers come out and mark the graves with flags. Last Memorial Day, they placed 105,000 flags. Near Christmas, they laid 30,000 wreaths.

Bushnell National Cemetery, however, is lacking something you might expect to see — a monument to the veterans and their spouses who have died and are buried there.

In 2018, Wayne became part of the committee that is working to design monuments for the cemetery, raise the money to fund them, and eventually carry out their installation, as well. 

Called the Florida National Cemetery Joint Veterans Support Committee, it is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization. Wayne also serves on a separate subcommittee, called the monuments committee, that is working to determine the plans and the rollout of the monuments.

After 21 years on active duty, and as a combat veteran from Vietnam, Granada, and Panama, Wayne is spending his retirement in a different kind of service. He was asked to join the Joint Veterans Support Committee as a representative of the Special Forces Association, of which he is a member. That group focuses on community service, as well.

“How could I not volunteer to help in the effort?,” Wayne asks.

Wayne works with committee chair Doug Gardner, also a Vietnam vet, who was inspired to join the effort when the cemetery’s executive director, Tony Thomas, shared his vision for a memorial that would welcome Vietnam veterans home.

“That caught me in one sentence,” says Doug, who understands that the memorial is not just about veterans from one conflict, so the committee came up with a design that would honor everyone buried at the cemetery.

The centerpiece of Freedom Memorial Plaza, which will be located at the main entrance to the cemetery, will be a tribute to a military honors funeral, with two bronze military figures folding a flag which will be powder-coated red, white and blue, over a bronze casket.

It will be surrounded by 14 additional monuments, with etchings displaying memorials for specific groups, such as Vietnam and World War II veterans, special forces, and more. It also will feature the Defenders of Freedom Wall, which will be 470 feet long, using the back of a columbarium (a public storage of cremated remains) that will delineate the border of the Memorial Plaza.

The wall will have granite panels that depict scenes from every U.S. conflict since the Revolutionary War. 

Doug is not only a veteran, he’s also a volunteer who helps visitors to the cemetery by answering questions, locating graves and even taking those who can’t walk out to the gravesites they want to visit on a golf cart.

He recently drove a World War II veteran who used a walker out to his wife’s grave. It had been a few months since she passed away, and there were lots of tears. It was emotional, but Doug says he felt something was missing. He looks forward to the time when he can take those veterans to a monument that will show them how much their service to their country is appreciated.

“We’ll get in that same golf cart, but on the way, we’ll go to the Defenders of Freedom Wall,” Doug says. “We’ll stop by the World War II section and it will bring back memories for him.” 

He hopes it will be meaningful for those it is intended to tribute, and educational for everyone who sees it.  “We have a half million visitors a year at the cemetery,” Doug says. “With the monuments, now it can become an educational experience for all.”

He emphasizes that all of the monuments will focus on sacrifice, not victory, and will give those who view it an understanding of the sacrifice that has happened throughout our nation’s history.

Wayne says it will honor not only his parents, but the values that they passed on to him.

“My parents instilled into me the principals of duty and honor and serving one’s country,” he says. 

Those values will one day be on display at the cemetery where they’re buried, thanks to the efforts of the entire committee and all those who support it, making Freedom Memorial Plaza a reality to both remember and honor all of the veterans buried at the Florida National Cemetery.

To find out how you can support the effort to bring the Freedom Memorial Plaza to life, go to the Joint Veterans Support Committee website at or search “jvscfl” on Facebook. 

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