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Memorial Day in Florida

My newspaper covers an area spanning three counties. Within our coverage area is the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell, Fla. It is the second busiest national cemetery in the country. It also happens to be turning 30 years old this year.

For this year’s Memorial Day project, I was tasked with photographing 30 voices related to veterans or veterans services. This included cemetery care takers, families of deceased veterans who are buried in Bushnell, honor guards and so on.

This was a huge assignment with only a few weeks to plan, organize and photograph all of the subjects.

The first subject I lined up was the man who spearheads the placing of more than 100,000 flags at the headstones of veterans who are buried in the cemetery. The flags go up in the cemetery the day before Memorial Day and come down the day after. Thousands of volunteers make this happen within an hour or so.

Since we weren’t going to be able to wait to get the images live at the cemetery, I shot a portrait of the man in his backyard with a handful of the flags that they prepare by hand.

Max Gersh / Daily Sun – More than 100,000 American flags wave with honor every year at the Florida National Cemetery. U.S. Army veteran Doug Gardner, of the Village of Gilchrist, is one of about 2,500 volunteers who places flags at he cemetery through the nationwide organization Flags for Fallen Vets. Local volunteers spend about an hour placing flags at each veteran?s headstone, marker of columbarium. They place the flag, read the veteran?s name aloud and thank him or her for their service. ?It?s a very emotional, heartwarming experience,? said Gardner, the executive vice president of the organization, who is responsible for four national cemeteries in the state. ?Freedom is not free,? he said. ?Placing flags at the graves each Memorial Day is a small gesture to honor their service and sacrifices.? Photographed behind his home Friday, May 11, 2018, in The Villages. ©2018

Another section of this project focused on the role of our local American Legion Post 347 – the largest post in the world. I photographed details of the honor guard members during a internment ceremony at the cemetery.

Max Gersh / Daily Sun – Tim Tierney of Veterans Memorial Post 347 Honor Guard salutes as Robin James, daughter of the late Rodney T. Johnson, is escorted to the committal shelter Tuesday, May 8, 2018, at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. ©2018

Max Gersh / Daily Sun – Tim Tierney of Veterans Memorial Post 347 Honor Guard salutes as Robin James, daughter of the late Rodney T. Johnson, is escorted to the committal shelter Tuesday, May 8, 2018, at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. ©2018

Max Gersh / Daily Sun – George Haman of Veterans Memorial Post 347 Honor Guard collects the rifle shells fired in the final volley Tuesday, May 8, 2018, during Rodney T. Johnson’s funeral at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. The shells are given to the family. ©2018

On a separate day, I spent over 16 hours on site at the cemetery, photographing the workers in the morning and family members of deceased veterans in the evening. During my time with the workers, I photographed everything from grave digging to headstone engraving.

Johnny “Harley” Pitt, of Wiersdale, lowers the flag at the assembly area to half-staff Tuesday, May 15, 2018, at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. The flag is lowered each morning before the first committal ceremony and is raised up after the last. ©2018

Max Gersh / Daily Sun – Josimar Hall, of Fruitland Park, places an urn in a niche of a columbarium Tuesday, May 15, 2018, at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. ©2018

Max Gersh / Daily Sun – Ken Hahn, of Wildwood, digs a hole 36 inches deep to place an in-ground cremation Tuesday, May 15, 2018, at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. ©2018

Max Gersh / Daily Sun – William Wade, of Lecanto, places a label on crypt lid after spotting for Rob Meagher, of Brooksville, as he dug the grave site Tuesday, May 15, 2018, at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. ©2018

Max Gersh / Daily Sun – Vets USA employee C.J. Brady, of Brooksville, uses a portable sandblaster to engrave a spouses name on the back of a headstone Tuesday, May 15, 2018, at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. ©2018

Max Gersh / Daily Sun – Vets USA employee Steve Pinter, of Tampa, uses a sandblaster to engrave headstones Tuesday, May 15, 2018, at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. ©2018

Max Gersh / Daily Sun – Thomas Robbins, of Webster, cuts grass between rows of headstones Tuesday, May 15, 2018, at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. ©2018

Max Gersh / Daily Sun – Morgan Hendrix, of Ocala, left, and David Van Horn, of Lakeland, guide a crypt lid in to place Tuesday, May 15, 2018, at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. ©2018

Max Gersh / Daily Sun – David Van Horn, of Lakeland, from left, Morgan Hendrix, of Ocala, and William Wade, of Lecanto, carry a casket to a grave site Tuesday, May 15, 2018, at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. ©2018

Max Gersh / Daily Sun – Morgan Hendrix, of Ocala, left, and William Wade, of Lecanto, fill a grave site with dirt Tuesday, May 15, 2018, at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. ©2018

Max Gersh / Daily Sun – Josimar Hall, of Fruitland Park, and William Wade, of Lecanto, replace a headstone after a second burial Tuesday, May 15, 2018, at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. ©2018

For the family member photos, I wanted them to be tasteful, respectful and showcase how much respect they had for their veteran. I used a pair of speedlights, one with a small softbox and the other either unmodified or with a snoot, to create dramatic lighting balanced with the fading ambient light.

Max Gersh / Daily Sun – Stanley and Arlene Schwartz fell in love through the mail before meeting. Arlene was encouraged to write Stan letters by a mutual friend. One letter turned into a nearly everyday exchange for the two years Stan spent in Navy training in Virginia and later overseas in Italy during the Korean War. “We just clicked,” Arlene said. Arlene, of the Village of Pennecamp, said the pair met after two months of letter-writing in person in their home state of New York on Valentine’s Day 1954. Stanley returned to Norfolk, Virginia, but sent off another letter after that first encounter. A $10 bill fell out. “And there was a note saying that we needed to start saving for an engagement ring,” Arlene said. The pair married 10 months later, She was 19 and he was 20. Stanley’s military career had been cut short by an injury on the basketball court in Italy, leading to an honorable discharge. Arlene said Stan always remained proud of his time in the Navy. “He said it was very exciting being on the ship and learning. All the guys were from different states, so he was able to meet a lot of new, different people,” she said. He always planned on being buried in a national cemetery. “He knew he was going to be buried here,” she said. “He was happy with that. And it’s just beautiful here.” Photographed Wednesday, May 16, 2018, at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. ©2018

Max Gersh / Daily Sun – Victor Wise’s service in the Korean War is documented in a series of slides now stored in a box in the Village of Belvedere home he and his wife, Joyce, shared. But outside of the memories captured on film, Joyce Said her husband never shared much about his time overseas. He did love sailing, she said. “He went over in a troop ship and almost three-quarters of the soldiers on board were seasick, but he wasn’t. He loved boating and was not at all sick. So he joked that the meals were great for those who were still standing,” Joyce recalled with a laugh. While stationed in Korea, Victor worked as a radio operator communicating in Morse code during the war. Returning to his hometown of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, Victor met Joyce at his cousin’s house party. When Victor’s blind date tanked, he and Joyce met up for their first date on her 21st birthday. The pair celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary on March 31 last year with a dinner out. That night, Victor ended up ill in the hospital. He never came home. Victor passed away March 16, 2017. Victor came from a long line of military servicemen. His dad was in the Army, his brother in the Navy, his son in the Virginia National Guard, and recently his grandson completed a tour as an Army Ranger. Photographed Tuesday, May 15, 2018, at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. ©2018

Max Gersh / Daily Sun – As a Cub Scout, John Wyks Jr. was tasked with interviewing his father, John Wyks Sr., who was tight-lipped about his military career. To this day, details of his time in the Army Air Corps during World War II are scarce. “He didn’t really have a lot to tell,” said Wyks Jr., of the Village of Calumet Grove. What the family does know is that Wyks Sr. served as a navigator on planes flying from India to China to supply the Chinese during their fight against the Japanese. The only wartime stories Wyks Jr. remembers his father telling were about a young Indian boy who helped keep their barracks clean, and about a monkey that hung around while they worked. After Wyks Sr. flew 50 missions overseas, he returned home to teach a new group of navigators in Texas. “He taught guys how to figure out where the heck they are,” Wyks Jr. said with a laugh. Wyks Sr. continued a generational tradition of military service as his father-in-law served in World War I, and both Wyks Jr. and his brother, Edward Wyks, of the Village of Glenbrook, joined the Army at enlistment age. Their sons also joined the Army, and a grandson recently joined the Navy. “It’s kind of a family thing,” Wyks Jr. said. “You make the choice to serve.” Photographed Tuesday, May 15, 2018, at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. ©2018

Max Gersh / Daily Sun – Kendall McIntyre spent most of his 30 years in the military behind the controls of a helicopter. He dropped gallons of Agent Orange on the fields of Vietnam, and later provided rigorous testing on Apache and Black Hawk helicopters before they went into combat service. Carola met Ken while they were both serving their country, him in the Army, her in the Air Force.The Village of Bridgeport at Lake Sumter resident said her husband faced every situation with a positive and determined attitude, even when he was diagnosed with lung cancer resulting from his contact with Agent Orange. He died in 2014. “He said he never regretted a single minute that he was in Vietnam,” Carola said. “He was a true, true patriot.” Ken got his hands on a Viet Cong rifle, keeping it for decades before donating it to be displayed at Eisenhower Recreation center, along with other memorabilia. Before moving to The Villages in 2006, Ken helped start a JROTC program at Dixie Hollins High School in St. Petersburg. Today, there is an empty spot next to Ken’s burial plot at Florida National Cemetery. Since Carola also served in the military, she gets her own headstone beside him. “I really feel like he’s with me all the time,” Carola said. “We were really soulmates. and Someday I’m going to be right next to him for eternity.” Photographed Wednesday, May 16, 2018, at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. ©2018

Max Gersh / Daily Sun – James Peraino never talked about his time serving in Vietnam until nearly 50 years later, when his war experience started taking a toll on his health, said his wife, Terry. It wasn’t until 2010, when the couple moved to The Villages, that James received his official Agent Orange diagnosis. The last six months of his service in 1968 likely contributed. He was a scout in the same fields the U.S. military was spraying with millions of gallons of herbicide that eventually were found to be the cause of illness in an unknown number of U.S. military members and Vietnamese citizens. For James, his side effects started as diabetes and ended with congestive heart failure and his passing in February. Two weeks after they moved into their home in the Village of Bonita, Terry Said, James made her take a trip down to Florida National Cemetery to check out the grounds and pick up a brochure. “I thought, ‘How depressing!'” Terry said with a laugh. But looking back eight years later, Terry said she is glad James made clear his wishes for a military funeral, complete with a gun salute. Now when Terry’s time comes, there is a spot reserved for her near her husband. “I’m not ready to be there, but I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else,” Terry said. I’m glad he’s in a place where he wanted to be.” Photographed Tuesday, May 15, 2018, at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. ©2018

Max Gersh / Daily Sun – Shawna Lucero spent the last nine years of her career in prisons, carefully dispensing prescriptions to inmates. As a pharmacist serving in the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, Shawna went through extensive training before landing her first assignment at Federal Correctional Complex Coleman. There, her husband Len Lucero said, she spent her days consulting with patients who never went home at the end of the day. She later transferred to Federal Correctional Institution Tallahassee. “She loved it. She loved her job in general. She loved her profession. And being able to do it in a prison setting, it meant not having to deal with the public,” Len said with a laugh. Uniformed members of the U.S. Public Heath Service Commissioned Corps are overseen by the Surgeon General. Shawna, 45, passed away May 16, 2017, following a traumatic brain injury. Shawna, Len and their two children, Ashley and Gabe, lived in Sumterville. As a member of the U.S. uniformed service, Shawna qualified to be buried at Florida National Cemetery nearby. “It’s an honor to be placed there, but we were way too young to even have to consider making those kinds of plans,” said Len, who retired for the Air Force in 2009. “The whole time when we were there, I was thinking that she’s way too young to be here.” Photographed Friday, May 18, 2018, at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. ©2018

Another aspect of this project had me shooting portraits in our studio with a projected background. This was challenging as the shutter speed had to be extremely slow to get the full color cycle of the projector. One of my favorites was of the man who was leading the Florida effort to find photographs for every service member from Florida whose name is on the Vietnam Memorial wall.

Max Gersh / Daily Sun – John Thomstatter, of the Village of Gilchrist, is the director of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1036. In Feb. 2016, Thomstatter became aware of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s Wall of Faces project and spearheaded the effort to find pictures for 778 Florida servicemen and women who were killed in Vietnam. As of today, they are still working to find 35 pictures. Photographed Thursday, May 10, 2018, at the Daily Sun photo studio. ©2018

I spent many more mornings and evenings trying to capture the serene settings of the cemetery.

Max Gersh / Daily Sun – Morning light reflects off the top of headstones Wednesday, May 23, 2018, at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. ©2018

It was humbling to be tasked with such a responsibility. I couldn’t have pulled this off without the help of my colleagues who helped schedule shoots, worked as grips on sets and covered all the daily shoots I couldn’t do. Without them, this would have been impossible. And while this collection of frames may seem like a lot, these images only represent some of my favorites from the project. There were many, many more.

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