BAY PINES, Fla. (WFLA) — Dean Kovalski never fought in a war but did spend years serving his country during peacetime.

He is a Veteran and wishes others would treat Memorial Day as a day of honor and remembrance.

“It’s not about barbeques and swimming pools,” he said. “These are the people that give me the freedom to talk to you here today. So just to be here in their presence. And you talk to the combat veterans, the real heroes?”

He pointed to the thousands of graves marked with American flags.

“They are going to tell you the real heroes are out there.”

The last in-person Memorial Day ceremony at Bay Pines VA took place in 2019.

Kovalski was one of hundreds who attended the Bay Pines Veterans Adminstration Memorial Day ceremony on Monday. It was the first in person ceremony to be held since 2019. Ceremonies in 2020 and 2021 were held ‘virtually’ due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ms. Julianna Boor, director of the St. Petersburg VA Regional Office, had the members of the crowd give themselves a hand.

“As important as it is to have these Memorial Day ceremonies virtually,” said Boor. “It feels so much more amazing in-person on this beautiful morning. “

U.S. Representative, and candidate for Florida Governor, Charlie Crist was one of the featured speakers.

“Today we honor the lives of all of the brave individuals who made the ultimate sacrifice,” said Crist. “Fighting to protect our freedoms.”

The keynote speaker was retired Marine Major General Randy West. He told a story about a Marine who paid the ultimate price for his unit.

“That day, 40 men who came to that rice paddy to do a routine sweep and came under attack were able to go home,” said West. “Because, one man, the 41st, Lance Corporal Grable, had been willing to risk his own life. “

After the ceremony, one woman walked along the flags and markers. Leslie Moore said she doesn’t believe she had any friends or relatives buried at Bay Pines, yet she feels she has a connection to all who paid the ultimate price.

“I think we’re all connected. We are all brothers and sisters in humanity, so we are all connected,” said Moore. “And I think if we all woke up every day with that in our hearts, we would be more on a path to peace.”

Bay Pines National Cemetery averages 1,000 burials a year and there are more than 36,000 interments of Veterans from the Indian War to present day.