The auditorium inside a sold-out Savannah Center in the retirement community of The Villages erupted with thundering applause and whistles after Gary Sinise announced that he would find a way to bring the Lt. Dan Band to The Villages later in the year.
It was February 21, 2019, when he made the unexpected announcement to the 600 people in attendance who had come to hear him talk about his book, Grateful American: A Journey from Self to Service.
The hottest ticket in town to see Gary and the Lt. Dan Band was added to The Villages social calendar for Sunday, October 27.
It was a day that went beyond everyone’s expectations in the most fulfilling of ways that lie at the core of every Lt. Dan Band performance.
Generations of veterans from all three of the communities that make up The Villages were out in a show of pride for the evening’s concert at Lake Sumter Landing Market Square. The show was a tribute to their service and contribution to the freedom of the United States of America.
Throngs of people stood shoulder to shoulder along the sidewalks. Restaurants and bars that surround the town square were filled to capacity. Row after row of people sitting in lawn chairs and fold-out chairs massed up and down Canal Street and Lake Sumter Landing in view of the stage and its two large projection screens.
More people were wrapped around the periphery of the town square to take in the spectacle.
The Villages in Sumter County, Florida, are a 90-minute drive north of Orlando. The master-planned community is home to nearly 130,000 residents.
Its layout epitomizes perfection. Not even the creatives and set designers in Hollywood can replicate Lake Sumter Landing Market Square, which brings together the finest aesthetics of a seaside New England village and southern charm that befits Savannah, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina.
But if they could replicate this retirement playground – including its golf courses and polo fields and impeccable landscaping right down to the whiskey barrels planted with a colorful array of chrysanthemums – they would combine the look and feel of the fictional towns featured in the films, The Truman Show and The Stepford Wives.
Unsurprisingly, The Villages has garnered a slew of nicknames by its residents who, by and large, come from the upper Midwest and east coast.
Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts are but a few of the lower 48 states whose residents find The Villages an ideal environment to retire and spend their twilight years.
They call it “Disneyland for adults and “Southern California for retirees – minus the taxes.”
Golf carts here are as common a sight as sheep are in New Zealand.
For all of its selling points, The Villages, and by extension Sumter County, happen to be home to the largest veteran community outside stateside military bases, according to Doug Macaulay who spent 21 years in the Navy with the Underwater Demolitions Team (UDT), a group that in later years became known as the Navy SEALs (Sea, Air, and Land).
Raised in Juno, Alaska, he entered the Navy in 1959, shortly after receiving his high school diploma.
Ask him about his years spent in the nascent special operations unit and what he was up to in Southeast Asia and where, he flashes a wry smile before saying in his raspy voice, “No.” “I cannot do that.”
The missions he performed, to this day, remain classified.
Macaulay’s stints in Vietnam were quick, he explained. “I was in and out of Vietnam in a month, three months, six months, sometimes a week, depending on the mission.”
“Every mission was different,” he said. “Sometimes it was intelligence gathering. Sometimes it was capture or kill.” The missions were different each time, and as the war intensified in the ensuing years, trickled into neighboring countries beyond the borders of Vietnam.
Did he and his UDT unit ever get inserted into nondeclared combat zones in Cambodia or Laos?
“Possible,” Macaulay said in between puffs from his pipe.
Like so many veterans who returned from Vietnam unwelcomed by their fellow countrymen, adjusting to civilian life presented many challenges.
“We never got a ‘thank-you’ or ‘welcome home,’ it was completely the opposite. In fact, we never admitted that we were in the military. It was that bad at times.”
He said that having the band and Foundation at The Villages made him feel “wonderful.”
As with so many veterans wearing their respective branch’s colors and insignias, Macaulay wore a Navy SEAL t-shirt with his denim jeans.
Sitting at the restaurant, City Fire alongside his buddies from Band of Brothers, a nonprofit that supports the veteran population at The Villages, he explained that community was home to American Legion Post 347 — the largest in the world — and whose veteran population is a prime reason why Band of Brothers is able to support their own, particularly those who’ve been silenced because of their service.
“This is a veteran-rich environment. There are 19,000 veterans in The Villages, and these are the people he [Gary Sinise] wants to honor and the first responders, not just veterans,” said Brad Limoge, a Band of Brothers member who served four years in the United States Air Force before transitioning to the Army National Guard.
“It’s like fishing in fertile waters.”
Retired Air Force veteran Robyn Frailey from Valparaiso, Indiana, was in town visiting her mother, Nancy Baxter, and older sister Deborah McCarty, a retired Air Force Lt. Colonel, both of whom are residents of The Villages.
“We love Gary Sinise, oh my gosh,” exclaimed Baxter. “It’s good to see the Vietnam vets finally getting the respect they deserve,” she said about Gary honoring them and others during the concert.
“People really listen to Gary Sinise when it comes to veterans, and we really do need a strong voice, we really do,” said Frailey, who before the concert ended, purchased a Lt. Dan Band t-shirt for purposes beyond personal style.
“I’m going to take this home and teach people about the Foundation.”
As the sun descended through the cotton candy-colored clouds to cast a warm subtle glow over Market Square, its rays striking through the humidity and Spanish moss sprinkled about the trees, there was no slow down in the crowd’s enthusiasm, and joy as the Lt. Dan Band raised the decibels and energy throughout the evening.
For Army veteran and retired New York City police officer, Alan Ostoits, and his wife, Jean, attending the concert was their way of supporting veterans and those who never made it back from a conflict zone.
“He was great in baseball, and we all believed he could’ve been a professional,” Alan said of his high school pal Danny Flynn, a promising ballplayer who had done well in the semi-pro leagues but who, after finishing college, decided to serve his country by enlisting in the Army during the Vietnam War.
“He was in country for maybe ten days when he got killed,” Ostoits said with a lump in his throat. Danny was a year shy of turning 21 years old.
His untimely death in Saigon while attached to a military police (MP) unit, still brings tears to Ostoits’ eyes.
Ostoits himself was drafted into the Army in 1965 right after graduating from high school. He knew going in that there was a likelihood of being sent to Vietnam, but it didn’t cross his mind while going through boot camp.
“It was a possibility, but I didn’t really know whether I would go or not.”
He eventually was sent to Vietnam in 1966 on a years-long deployment as part of a field artillery unit positioned in Phúc Yên and elsewhere in country.
When he came home to New York after finishing up his enlistment, it was to a rude awakening.
“People didn’t like us much.” It wasn’t just antiwar protests being carried out in the streets and on college campuses that dismayed him.
While Ostoits and his wife were at a party, someone found out that he had served in Vietnam.
“They came up to me and called me a ‘baby killer,’” he said while shaking his head in disbelief.
“We were at a party,” exclaimed Jeane, who emphasized the circumstances surrounding the brash, unprovoked comment.
Despite the cold and unappreciative reception, Ostoits said tongue in cheek, “I came home with a good tan. People thought I was in Florida on vacation.”
On the opposite side of the square of where Alan and Jean Ostoits sat, WWII veteran Edward Harvey and his daughter took in the evening’s entertainment from the comfort of a bench outside the local soft-serve ice cream shop in view of one of the projection screens.
Harvey had seen Gary back in February at the Savannah Center when Gary swung through the area on his nationwide book tour. Gary’s words of gratitude and thanks directed at Harvey and others from the Greatest Generation, struck a chord with him.
He had served in the U.S. Army at the tail end of the war when, in 1945, he was sent to Germany where he remained for the next three years.
“He never spoke about his service,” his daughter explains. “He never felt properly thanked for what he did during the war.”
Though hard of hearing, Harvey, who was wearing a Navy blue WWII veteran hat, was interrupted time and again during the concert by many who stopped by to shake his hand and tell him, “thank you for your service.”
Harvey took it all in stride. His smile said it all.
At one point during Gary’s Q&A with moderator John Woodall back in February at the Savannah Center, he described in some detail how it was that he came to naming his book, Grateful American, “Growing up in this country I’m grateful for the men and women who serve this country and provide that freedom and I want to do everything I can to help my country and help those who serve.”
For Doug Macaulay, Brad Limoge, Robyn Frailey and her sister, Deborah McCarty, Alan and Jean Ostoit, Edward Harvey and his daughter, and the thousands of other veterans and their families in attendance during the concert, the acknowledgment and recognition of their service and shared sacrifices, conveyed to them by Gary and the band, left an indelible impression, that for many, was never given upon their return home from the battlefield.