Hundreds of area residents from Fort Leonard Wood and the surrounding communities gathered in the Waynesville High School gymnasium May 1 for the area's first Community Salute to Service.

The inaugural event honored nearly 60 seniors from high schools across South Central Missouri who made a commitment to serve in the United States military.

"We typically enter our gyms as rivals; however, tonight, on this court, we are united as Americans and are here to show our support and appreciation for those joining the military," said Dr. Brian Henry, Waynesville R-VI School District superintendent.

During his opening remarks, Missouri Governor Michael Parson, an Army veteran, congratulated the students on their decision and said he didn't understand the true meaning of the Pledge of Allegiance or the U.S. flag until he wore the uniform.

"You're going to make sacrifices for people you'll never see, you'll never know and you'll never meet," Parson said. "But what you will do -- you will join the tradition that was handed down by our forefathers."

Keynote speaker Maj. Gen. Donna Martin, Maneuver Support Center of Excellence and Fort Leonard Wood commanding general, told the students that they are choosing a career unlike any other in America and commended their families and educators for supporting them.

"(These students) are becoming a member of a very elite team. They are becoming a part of history, and you should be proud that they have the courage to leave the comfort of their surroundings to experience adventures all over the world that come with military service," Martin said. "They have chosen to be a part of something bigger than themselves."

She said the students are the next generation of guardians for the principles on which the country was founded.

"Tonight we celebrate you and say thank you for joining the less than 1 percent of Americans who serve and sacrifice in defense of this great nation," Martin said. "Your lives will forever be changed in a positive way. Welcome to our team."