AUBURNDALE — Red, white and blue tablecloths with matching, star-shaped Mylar balloons decorated the Auburndale Community Center where the Rotary Club of Auburndale offered area veterans breakfast and appreciation on Veterans Day.
Auburndale High School JROTC cadets and students with the Stambaugh Middle School Leadership Club tended to the honorees, mostly older veterans with family members, and several in smartly pressed uniforms.
"It's good to see this," Vietnam veteran Jim Bockover said. "I wear my Vietnam hat every day, and not a day goes by someone doesn't thank me for my service."
It wasn't always this way, he said.
"It took a long time before we saw any appreciation," the Air Force veteran said. "I'm glad to see the recognition today, because I didn't see it when I came home."
Bockover enlisted in 1965 to avoid being drafted, the retired sergeant said. In the service, he was a communications specialist, working in cryptography and coded messages. He spent his 22nd birthday in Vietnam during his tour from 1967 to 1968.
During Saturday's breakfast Larry Walker, the impromptu master of ceremonies, asked vets to give their stories.
Water Wittholz, 93, a retired admiral, spoke briefly about his time on Tinian in 1945 being responsible for moving the atom bombs from the U.S.S. Indianapolis to Tinian, where they were loaded into the special-built B-29 bombers. He was among the first to see the aftermath of their use.
Neil Taylor, a Seaman First Class at his time in service in World War II, spoke about following his brothers into service, enlisting at age 17. He noted he was a sailor assigned to an LST, technically an amphibious landing ship called a "Landing Ship, Tank" but in the sailors' vernacular, a "large, slow target."
But Taylor spent most of his time talking about his life back home, and the 64 years he's spent with his wife Betty Lou. He recited a poem in honor of her and their love.
And John Denton, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, talked about how though he was ready and willing to take his fighter jet into combat after signing on in 1970, Uncle Sam had other plans with him working as a flight instructor. His planned deployment to Southeast Asia was cancelled.
In his more than 21-year career, Denton was never shot at, he said, and he honors those who have faced enemies in battle.
Denton said he was proud of the young people in the JROTC present Saturday, and what may become a career in the service of the country.
"Once you take the oath to defend the Constitution of the United States," he said, "I don't care what rank you are, at a time of war, 24 hours a day you know you can be called upon to be shot at."
Bockover, the Vietnam veteran, kept his remarks brief.
"A big difference between Vietnam and World War II," Bockover said, "was that in Vietnam we weren't allowed to win, and didn't."
When he came home, "they spit on me, they called us baby killers," Bockover told Direct Gates. The My Lai Massacre was fresh, and citizen soldiers like Bockover got painted with the same brush as William Calley, the U.S. Army lieutenant convicted for 22 murders.
"It used to be, nothing was done for veterans," Bockover said. "We were the best America had. We went not because we wanted to, but because we were told to."
This was the second year Auburndale Rotarians hosted the appreciation breakfast, which was catered by Chamba's Hometown Café. Club president Linda Johnson said with the support from the community and members this year and last, they hope to make it an annual event.
The willingness to contribute has been so great, she said, they had to turn away potential donors.
"We love our veterans in this city," Johnson said.
Christopher Guinn can be reached at Christopher.Guinn@directgates.com or 863-802-7592. Follow him on Twitter @CGuinnNews.