Flags fly in memory of heroes

The committee behind the memorial to local fallen heroes salutes its completion on a bright, crisp, cool day.

Published December 13, 2003

CRYSTAL RIVER – It was the moment Pete DeRosa and the Fallen Heroes committee had been waiting for.

The sky was clear blue and the air had just the slightest chill. The chairs set out for guests were filled and plenty more people stood on the lawn of Bicentennial Park.

“Oh say can you see,” crooned a man’s voice from a played recording of the national anthem.

Pairs of men from the American Legion Post 155 – their hair gray and white, some shoulders stooped and other waists rounded – tugged quickly on ropes and hoisted six flags. First, the Army flag. Then, flags bearing the emblems of the Coast Guard, Merchant Marine, Marine Corps and Navy.

And finally, after some fumbling, the blue Air Force flag joined its brothers, linked by an American and prisoner of war flag in between.

Minutes later, DeRosa and Fred Bunts pulled a white sheet off the dedication ceremony’s centerpiece: a slender granite structure bearing the names of the 59 Citrus County residents who have died in military service to the United States.

“The dream has come true,” DeRosa said after the ceremony.

DeRosa, who had several family members serve and die in war, was credited at Friday’s Fallen Heroes memorial dedication as the visionary behind the effort to honor local soldiers who lost their lives in battle.

War is inherently filled with hardship, a notion not lost on the Fallen Heroes group as it struggled in recent months to have its goal realized. The monument initially was slated for the city of Crystal River’s Little Springs Park, adjacent to City Hall.

The Crystal River City Council approved the memorial in September but not without contention over the project’s seven-flag design. The city’s flag ordinance allows only four flags per property, meaning the group needed a special exemption to preserve their design.

But in October, the council voted 3-2 against altering the flag ordinance. The Fallen Heroes group decided if it couldn’t erect the memorial as designed, it wouldn’t build it at all within the city limits.

The organization turned to the county, which quickly approved a plan to build the memorial in Bicentennial Park, just south of Crystal River city limits.

In about five weeks, county workers cleared a wooded spot and volunteer contractors poured cement and installed the memorial’s pieces. The organization collected more than $25,000 to pay for the memorial.

Still to come are benches, landscaping and tile blocks that will feature the names of 40 donors who gave more than $500 each to the cause, said group spokesman Keith Taylor.

At the dedication late Friday morning, organizers agreed they made the right decision in moving the monument’s location and keep their design intact. The six military flags flying atop tall poles evoked pride for veterans of each branch of the armed forces, they said.

Retired Col. Curt Ebitz, the event’s guest speaker, explained how flags had for centuries marked hallowed ground.

During battle, he said, flags served as “beacons to rally combat forces amidst the fog of war and the chaos of organized violence.”

But the dedication speakers also emphasized that the memorial was about much more than flags or names chiseled into rock. It was about the people who didn’t live to be recognized for their sacrifice.

“Who were these fallen sons?” Ebitz asked. “The answer is clear and indisputable. They were American patriots. They were freedom’s guardians. They were uncommon heroes.

“They valued life,” he said, “but cherished our American way of life far more.”

– Colleen Jenkins can be reached at 860-7303 or cjenkins@sptimes.com
COLLEEN JENKINS Published December 13, 2003

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Paths cross for 2 of our top citizens 
By Gerry Mulligan

A sad and appropriate circle was completed today.

In today’s Chronicle, we give recognition to Aaron Weaver as our 2004 Citizen of the Year.

Aaron was the Citrus High School graduate who was killed one year ago this weekend while serving his country in Iraq. Aaron was a true American hero.

One year ago this week we recognized our Citizen of the Year for 2003 — Pete DeRosa of Crystal River. In the summer of 2004, Pete died after a long struggle with cancer and heart disease. Pete was also a true American hero.

Pete DeRosa and Aaron Weaver never met — but they were tied together by their histories and the love of both this county and country.
Pete’s story was unusual. He was a native of Italy who first moved to New York and later relocated to Citrus County. Over a four-decade period Pete became a lovable civic leader on the west side of the county. He helped get Seven Rivers hospital built, founded the local Rotary Club, served as the chamber president and developed a community that has his name.

He was in the news in 2003 because he was the founder and spirit behind the construction of the Fallen Heroes Memorial at Bicentennial Park in Crystal River. Pete dreamed up the idea of this war memorial because he wanted to make sure we never forgot those local residents who died while fighting wars in foreign countries. The names of every county resident who died while fighting on a battlefield were etched into the marble monument. The names date back to the Civil War.

The monument made extraordinary news because the blockheads on the Crystal River City Council wouldn’t let it be built in the park next to City Hall because the memorial design included seven flags. The city had rules that only permitted three flags. Nothing like getting hung up on the big stuff.

These incredible young men gave their lives for their country and the city wouldn’t honor them because of the number of flags. Pete knew he was dying so his committee switched gears and worked to get the memorial built at the county’s Bicentennial Park — which was conveniently located just south of the city’s boundaries. The county didn’t have a problem with the seven flags.

While the committee raised $30,000 in private contributions, work was hurried along so Pete could see the final effort before he passed.
The memorial was finished in late 2003. An incredible tragedy took place in January of 2004. That was when Aaron Weaver and eight other Americans were killed when their helicopter was shot down in Iraq.

The irony was Aaron wasn’t flying the helicopter; he was a passenger following orders that he get a checkup as part of his own cancer treatment. You see, Aaron really shouldn’t have been in Iraq. He had already survived close encounters with death on two occasions.
His first brush took place while he was piloting his own helicopter in Mogadishu, Somalia, where he was trying to rescue U.S. troops that had been ambushed and killed in that war-torn country. His helicopter was shot to pieces, but he somehow managed to survive. The exploits of Aaron and his fellow pilots were later documented in the popular movie “Black Hawk Down.”

Mike Weaver, Aaron’s dad, has worked at the Chronicle for the last two decades so there’s much emotion with this story. When Aaron returned from the service after the Somalia incident he met Nancy Gallagher, the head of the Chronicle’s customer service department. They fell in love and got married.

Aaron’s second brush with death came shortly after his marriage to Nancy. He came down with cancer and almost died. It took months of exhaustive treatment, but he survived. One of the side effects was that he was told he could never have children. About a year later Aaron and Nancy had a baby girl. You just couldn’t keep the kid down.

Because of the cancer, Aaron shouldn’t have been in Iraq. He volunteered and had to sign a waiver to go and fight for his country. On the day he died he was going for a checkup to make sure the cancer was still in remission.

Shortly after Aaron was killed, Pete DeRosa got out of his hospital bed to go visit the war memorial at Bicentennial Park. I met Pete at the memorial with Mike Weaver and some of the members of the Fallen Heroes committee. We all stood in silence as a worker engraved Aaron’s name into Pete’s Fallen Heroes Memorial. Aaron’s dad and Pete shared some tears that day. So did I.

Pete is buried today at the cemetery across from the National Guard Armory. If you stand at his grave, you can see the tops of the seven flagpoles at the county park. They look terrific.

Pete DeRosa — our 2003 Citizen of the Year — and Aaron Weaver — our 2004 Citizen of the Year — came at it from totally different directions. Aaron deserves the recognition because he courageously defended our nation and our way of life. Pete deserves the recognition because he expended so much energy to give recognition to people like Aaron.

There were plenty of differences between them, but they had one thing in common. Both were American heroes.

Gerry Mulligan is the publisher of the Chronicle. His e-mail address is gmulligan@chronicleonline.com.