BRADENTON -- His granddaughter, Melanie, never let go of his hand during the Rowlett Elementary School Veterans Day parade. And the second-grader stayed close by retired Lt. Col. Ron Turner's side during a ceremony that featured the Rowlett Boys' Choir and speeches from World War II and Afghanistan veterans.
Turner had been to the ceremony before with other grandchildren, but Thursday it was Melanie's turn to march around the Rowlett courtyard with her grandpa as other students, staff and parents cheered and waved flags.
Rowlett has become known for its Veterans Day celebration; many veterans visit every year as their grandchildren cycle through the system. Like Turner, who remembers the first time he came to the Rowlett celebration five years ago and another veteran took him aside and joked, "I was wondering when you'd start coming."
"It's awesome," said Turner, who served in the Air Force from 1965 to 1988. "It's probably one of the most moving tributes I have ever attended."
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Turner spent 13 years of his service overseas, serving in Turkey, Germany and Greece after three tours in Vietnam.
"Thirteen years!" Melanie overhears him say Thursday. The 7-year-old sounds proud.
Patriotism was contagious in the Rowlett courtyard as students and staff began the event with a parade of local veterans, some who marched alongside their grandchildren to a beat held steady by the Rowlett Strikers, the school's drumline.
"It's a great patriotic day," Principal Brian Flynn said. "I think it's
important for kids to understand about the sacrifices veterans have made."
The school also honored veterans with multiple performances in a ceremony outdoors and later on stage inside the auditorium.
The advanced chorus sang "America the Beautiful." The Southeast High School rifle and drill team performed. Student dancers performed tap and ballet routines to patriotic songs. Students as young as first grade played the violin.
And there were funny skits -- a girl knocked over her friends like dominos with an overzealous salute in boot camp.
Capt. Nathan Walters, the son of Rowlett media production teacher Dave Walters and an Army veteran who just served in Afghanistan, spoke to the crowd Thursday about understanding their own responsibility to their country.
"I'm afraid that we start to forget that this is our country," Walker said after the parade. "It's not just the military's. It's not just the government's. It's ours."
Walters also introduced Capt. Robert O'Neil, who was 16 when he was stationed at Pearl Harbor and survived the Japanese attack on Dec. 7, 1941. O'Neil said he's witnessed times -- back in the "Vietnam days" -- when people didn't appreciate veterans.
"We're hear to protect something -- our freedom and the red, white and blue," O'Neil said.
For some visitors, service is a family affair. Edward A. Herbst wore his son's Cape May Coast Guard shirt to his third Veterans Day celebration at Rowlett.
Herbst was drafted in the Vietnam War and served for two years in Italy from 1963 to 1965. His father, Adolph Herbst, served in the Pacific in World War II. His son, Edward A. Herbst Jr., is a Coast Guard battalion officer in Cape May, N.J.
Two of Herbst's grandsons, Justin and Gabe, go to Rowlett.
"They do a lot of beautiful things," Herbst said. "They really bring in the family."
But beyond the glitz and the glee, the spirited performances and the cheers at Rowlett, there were subtle reminders of the real sacrifice those have made on behalf of the country.
Students made a wall featuring 157 veterans, quick bios on the friends and family of Rowlett students and staff. A skit focused on the simple, but powerful meaning behind the American flag. Others know firsthand of sacrifice.
Receptionist Jacqui Cumbie is eagerly awaiting the return of her son from his second tour in Afghanistan in two weeks.
"I get choked up," Cumbie said. "It will be a relief to have him home."
O'Neil understands this, too.
Right after peace was declared in World War II, O'Neil and other soldiers rescued four Americans and five Australians from an abandoned POW camp on an island in Tokyo Bay.
He remembers this, almost 70 years later.
On that day, a man cried out when someone took an American flag out of their bag to hoist instead of the Japanese one. Then the man ran to the flag, O'Neil said. He grabbed it, kissed it and began to cry.
Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.