By Kari Hawkins, Redstone Rocket StaffNovember 20, 2008
The Huntsville/Madison County community gave the military its traditional gift of celebration, honor, respect and admiration on Veterans Day.
Amidst the Cahaba Shrine clowns, high school drum majors, dancing divas, Corvette and Mustang lovers, Cub Scouts, firefighters and antebellum ladies, the message was loud and clear - Huntsville loves its military and wants them to know it.
In return, the military came out in full force - from the Soldiers and Marines posted on Redstone Arsenal to the local college ROTC and high school JROTC cadets - to let the community know the military appreciates the support.
As Soldiers and civilians all marched together in the area's largest Veterans Day Parade (140 plus entries), they were greeted and cheered by hundreds of flag-waving, all-American parade lovers.
"Every year we reach deeper and deeper, and every year the community just responds more passionately than ever before," said retired Brig. Gen. Bob Drolet, who was chairman once again of the community's Veterans Day Committee and who serves as the state chairman for the Association of the U.S. Army.
"An army of volunteers all worked to pull this parade together. It just keeps getting better and better. As the community has grown, the parade has grown. It's been exciting."
The parade kicked off with a pre-parade ceremony at 10:45 that included a flag ceremony with the Huntsville Fire Department's color guard and the national anthem sung by retired Sgt. Maj. Gregory Knight and followed by the invocation given by Rev. Charles Lee, a retired Naval aviator.
"We are proud to be Americans today and always," Lee prayed. "Thank you, Lord, for the freedoms we enjoy to pursue life, liberty, happiness and the highest goals of serving in the military ... May our military stand tall and strong as they fight valiantly against every enemy that tries to extinguish the flame of freedom. May we always live in the land of the free and the home of the brave."
With the firing of a cannon, the parade started promptly at 11 a.m. The first entry was a group of students from Legacy Elementary School, who carried the "Courage, Sacrifice, and Duty" parade banner. The school's students were chosen for the honor because they raised the most money for the building of the Veterans Memorial during the penny drop campaign conducted in local schools.
As in year's past, Alabama A&M's Maroon & White Marching Band set the pace for the parade, performing "God Bless America" for the special guests seated on the reviewing stand. They were followed by a smorgasbord of entries that included the Madison County Hall of Hero's inductees, Lockheed Martin, Mt. Zion church, Sons of the Confederacy, Alabama Marine Moms, WDRM Radio, Butler Green & Gold Marching Band, an Avenger missile system and the Rocket Taekwondo.
Yet, throughout the parade route, the biggest cheers were for the veteran groups, Soldiers of the 59th Ordnance Brigade, the Marine Detachment, and the ROTC and JROTC programs.
"I like to watch the veterans," said 10-year-old Kelsi Wetzel, who attended the parade with her mom and 6-year-old brother. "My daddy (former Sgt. Patrick Wetzel) was in the Army."
Kids expressed their enthusiasm and excitement for the parade with cheers and dancing. Rachel Uithoven, 7, and Moriah Phillips, 11, each wearing their American Heritage Girls vest, waved signs that said "Thank you for serving our country." Moriah's two brothers - Ethan, 9, and Owen, 8 -- wore their Cub Scout uniforms and waved flags.
Cara Gresham, 10, was easy to spot along the parade route. Her red, white and blue top hat decorated with stars and stripes sparkled despite the cloudy skies. Cara was all smiles when floats passed by her spot.
"I like seeing all the floats," she said.
Her mom, Susan Gresham, enjoyed watching the parade with her youngest daughter and her 17-month-old grandson Landon Scearce, along with other family members.
"It's important to let the Soldiers know we're behind them," Susan Gresham said. "We love to see all our military and honor our veterans."
Army veteran William Lynch, who served in Operation Desert Storm/Shield, enjoyed watching the parade from the sidelines.
"I used to not come to the parade because there was so much pain for me," he said. "But now I love it. We have so many young people involved in the military. We need to support our young folks and thank them for what they are doing. We're free and young people are trying to serve in our footprints. We're free!"
During the parade, Lynch struck up a friendship with Bob Taylor and his young cousin, Chandler Stockton, 7.
"We come to the parade every year," Taylor said. "I didn't serve. But my brother was killed in Vietnam. I have a lot of respect and admiration for the military."