OCALA, Fla. — Marion County Public School district held its annual Veterans Day ceremony Friday, with students and veterans honoring those who lost their lives in battle.
The event has been held at the Marion County Veterans Park in Ocala for 17 years but was canceled due to weather last year. This year, hundreds came to honor the fallen.
“I am really proud of the turnout that comes out of this,” said Carlton Madren, who served as a medic and combat engineer for 20 years.
Madren came from a military family, with his grandfather serving in the Navy, and his father the Air Force. He also lost family in the Second World War. Madren signed up for the army in 1978 and was in the U.S. Reserves after.
“The older I get, the more touched I get,” said Madren, referring to the ceremony. “I’m touched that people still remember the sacrifices of people who had to fight for us.”
The ceremony started with the National Anthem, performances from students and speeches from former veterans.
Air Force Veteran Spencer Dougherty spoke about how joining the military helped him achieve his goal of being an elementary school teacher. He also touched on the bravery of “signing a blank check to the U.S. payable with your life.”
Surrounding the event space is a park with benches honoring fallen soldiers. There are also memorial plaques for specific wars and missions.
Becky Hall’s children go to school in Marion County, and she volunteered as a chaperone for the event.
Hall’s family friend Chad Lake was killed in Iraq in 2005, and he has a memorial in the park. She says Lake was like a cousin to her.
“When I come here I feel overwhelming pride, but also a little bit of sadness,” said Hall. “You look around and see all of these names on the bricks, and almost everyone is in remembrance.”
Hall says she has come a few times to honor him, but it’s been a few years. What stood out to her this time was how hundreds of students continued to honor the memory of those lost.
“I’m really glad they have the school here,” Hall said. “I didn’t realize how many people and students are involved.”
Many of the students who participated in the ceremony are planning on being a part of the next generation to serve the country. Many Junior ROTC students did an Armed Drill Performance and Color Guard march.
Harper Brawley, 14, and Alyssa Vincent, also 14, are two JROTC members who are members of the drill team.
“I joined because my parents want me to be a leader and I thought this would be a great advantage,” said Vincent. “My mom and dad were both in the army.”
In JROTC activities, the students do everything from military-style marching to dancing exhibitions and tutoring.
Brawley says that besides being the stepping stone to joining the military, the school benefits are very helpful too. Two years of JROTC gives students performing arts and fine arts credits and also provides exercise and other extracurricular activities.
“Our command sergeant major also does a great job leading us,” said Brawley. “Overall, my experience here has been a good way to improve my leadership and other aspects of life.”
Michael Vaziento, 15, and Pablo Rivera, 17, are students at North Marion High School. Vaziento’s mom was in the army and he has been involved in JROTC events since he was in elementary school.
Rivera’s JROTC journey was a bit different.
“I got roped into it by my friends,” he said. “I came by for one event to check it out and I kind of fell in love with it.
The two participate in many of the same activities as Brawley and Vincent, except they are in the color guard and wear a different blue uniform than other JROTC groups.
Often, they come to the Veterans Park to clean the bricks with the names of fallen soldiers. They have also attended the Veterans Day ceremony in the past.
“It’s a lot more full here than it was the last time I came,” said Vaziento. “The whole bleacher was empty last time and now it’s filled.”
Vaziento wants to join either the Air Force or the National Guard, while Rivera thinks he may get “roped into” joining the Marines.
Vaziento and Rivera were looking forward to the flyover at the end, as well as the 21-gun salute. These are the “staple” events that happen at almost every Veterans or Memorial Day ceremony.
During the event, there was a calmer and more respectful tone taken as everyone paid their respects. When the 21-gun salute and cannon went off, some of the younger students started reacting by yelling about how loud it was.
The entire crowd began laughing as the kids kept complaining as the salute went on. A brief moment of laughter to end the mostly somber two-hour ceremony of remembrance.