By Miles Parks
It was a Saturday morning full of contrast.
Lakeland's Veterans Day festivities began at the edge of the water at Lake Beulah, as Polk Transit unveiled a new veterans ridership program, and ended in the heart of downtown.
From lauding the hundreds of marching JROTC cadets who represent "the future" of the country's military, to the few men present honored for serving in World War II, the timelessness of service was on display.
And a ribbon was cut that could affect the lives of tens of thousands of vets across the county.
U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, Polk Transit officials, and more than 40 veterans cut the ribbon for the Jim Erickson Veterans Universal Access Program. The program, the first of its kind in the country, will provide free rides to the roughly 60,000 veterans in Polk County.
"We must not just be the land of the free," Ross said in his speech, facing Lake Beulah. "But we must also honor the brave."
The program, which is subsidized through private donations, will allow veterans with a military identification card to access all fixed route buses in the county. Polk Transit Executive Director Tom Phillips said the program will help veterans who previously may not have been able to go to the grocery store or perform basic tasks.
A parade followed the ceremony, which was followed by a Veterans Day Festival at Munn Park on Saturday afternoon.
Hundreds of people lined the streets to watch the parade that featured the Lakeland Police Department, the Lakeland Fire Department, veterans groups from all over the county on motorcycles, and high school cadets.
"Whoa oh oh," Ridge High School sang out. "Stand tall, looking good!"
The happiness of the parade didn't neglect the poignancy of remembering fallen military members.
"Tell me why," Summerlin Academy yelled as they marched past on the route, "Does a soldier have to die?"
Lt. Col. Scott LaRonde, a ROTC battalion commander at Florida Southern College, gave the keynote speech, taking listeners through battles the U.S. military has participated in since World War II.
"At some point today, I encourage all of you to take a moment to not just look at these monuments, but read their stories," LaRonde said. "We have followed in the footsteps of our heroes and we will continue to accept nothing less than victory."
From the isolated drone of "Taps" to the echo in Munn Park as Lakeland High School blared the national anthem, residents were treated Saturday to a wide spectrum of sights and sounds.
There are some things that don't come so easily, Mayor Gow Fields reminded people Saturday.
"There was a price paid for the freedoms we enjoy," he said. "That is because freedom is not free."