EAST MANATEE -- Students lined the upper level of the courtyard Wednesday morning at Braden River Middle School as the last strains of "Taps" faded from eighth-grader Erin Walters' trumpet.
For a moment, the only sound was the flapping of giant flag creations hanging from the railing below them, adorned with the names of about 58,000 service members killed in the Vietnam War.
"Always remember these people," said speaker Christopher Brown earlier in the ceremony, the school's 13th annual tribute to veterans. "Always remember their service to you. How are you going to honor their sacrifice?"
Brown, the school's social studies department chairman, served in a helicopter squadron in the U.S. Navy Reserve from 1986-92 and was stationed on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean during the first Gulf War.
"So many people have sacrificed so much for you," Brown told students. "How are you going to pay it forward?"
Brown was one of several veterans on hand at the ceremony, which included the unveiling of the newest panel on the school's Veterans Wall of Honor. There are nearly 700 tiles in the 26 mosaics honoring vets who are related or have a connection to students at Braden River Middle.
This year's panel, designed by eighth-grader Kalaina Hintze, included the image of a yellow ribbon tied around an oak tree and an American flag.
Student Sasha Khatani explained the meaning, tracing it back to the popular 1973 song "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree" and how the ribbon became a popular symbol during the Iran hostage crisis a few years later and for conflicts that followed.
The mural and the ceremony are a way of helping students remember the sacrifice of veterans and the freedom they earned for them, said Principal Randy Petrilla.
"Freedom is the most prized possession on Earth," Petrilla told students. In other parts of the world, "young people are not permitted to go to school. They're not permitted to learn, to dream, to achieve."
The handful of Korean War veterans in attendance said they especially appreciated the ceremony, which included a breakfast reception.
"There's only a few of us still around," said Thomas "Skip" Hannon, commander of the Korean War Veterans Association Chapter 199.
"There's not too many of us left these days."
Guest speaker David "Watchdog" Miner, a Manatee County School Board member who served during the Vietnam War with the U.S. Marines, asked students to join him in pledging not to bully, tease or judge one another in the name of "liberty and justice for all."
The ceremony included a flag raising by the Braden River High School color guard, a "Call to Colors" by VFW Post 10141 Honor Guard member Dan Suca, performances of the "Star-Spangled Banner" by Braden River Middle School's eighth-grade band, "America the Beautiful" by the eighth-grade orchestra and "An American Medley" by the seventh- and eighth-grade chorus.
Jason Bartolone, East Manatee Editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011. Follow him on Twitter@JasonBartolone.