11/13/11 — Veterans call 2011 parade 'greatest ever'

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Veterans call 2011 parade 'greatest ever'

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on November 13, 2011 1:50 AM

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Joshua Crawford, 9, Bobbi Ann Crawford and Macy Montague, 8, thanks veterans for their service as they pass by during Goldsboro's Veterans Day Parade Friday.

William Westbrook had his hands full -- an American flag in one; his 5-year-old sister, Melissa's, arm in the other.

But when members of the North Carolina National Guard tossed some candy out the window of their humvee, the boy dropped both and took off running.

"I love parades," he said moments later, looking up at his mother, Jennifer.

"Candy more though, right?" she replied. "Just admit it."

To William, the Wayne County Veterans and Patriots Coalition's annual Veterans Day parade seemed routine. Boy Scouts lagged behind their troop leaders so they could smile for cameramen and women lining Center Street. Locally stationed airmen cheered and waved from military vehicles -- graciously accepting applause and the many "thank yous" that came their way. Sirens blared and marching bands hooted and hollered.

But Coalition president Bill Graham saw something extraordinary unfolding for the 45 minutes he and other local veterans watched, from a platform, as dozens of groups passed them by.

"It really was a great parade -- just a great parade," he said. "We have had some good ones in the past, but after the start we had, this might be our greatest ever."

With less than 20 floats entered and only a handful of days remaining until what was supposed to be a "memorable" event, Graham feared the celebration would fall short of his desire to bring local residents and service members together to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden, the end of the Iraq war and the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

But after he went public about his shock that so few organizations had signed up to join the procession, something special happened.

And what unfolded Friday was proof, he said, that Goldsboro and the communities that surround it truly are among the most patriotic he has ever seen.

Jackson Whitfield jumped up and down when members of the 4th Fighter Wing Explosive Ordnance Disposal flight made their way past him -- guiding a robot used to diffuse threats at home and abroad.

"That might be the coolest thing I have ever seen," the 11-year-old said. "Dad, I'm getting a robot like that one day."

The boy's father, Steven, chuckled.

"Well, the only way that's gonna happen is if you join the Air Force," he said. "I thought you wanted to be a football player."

"Well, if I make it to the NFL, I could probably buy one," the boy replied. "But if I get hurt or something, the Air Force might work."

Others were inspired by young men and women who seemed committed to a future in the military.

"Look at those ROTC boys," Wayne Grant said, as members of the Eastern Wayne group marched toward him. "They look sharp. It's nice to see some young people with direction. Glad to see that some are still willing to carry the torch."

Vietnam veteran Gary Hilton agreed.

"When I joined the service, it wasn't by choice," he said. "I don't think we recognize our volunteer forces enough. God bless each one of them."

One women praised them enough for the hundreds who forged the cold breeze that welcomed the crowd who gathered downtown.

916th Air Refueling Wing Operations Group Commander Col. Caroline Evernham spoke on behalf of Seymour Johnson leadership -- reminding the crowd that they had shown up to honor all who have fought, and are currently fighting for their country.

"Today is a day of honor and to honor," she said.

But those who serve are not simply the ones who greet each day by putting on a uniform.

The community they call home -- and the neighbors who care for family members left behind when a loved one boards a war-bound plane -- also play a part in the success of the U.S. Armed Forces.

So before she closed her remarks, the colonel thanked those who showed up to pay tribute to veterans past and present.

"The citizens of Goldsboro and Wayne County ... have opened your arms and you hearts to our service men and women," she said. "And that is what makes this community one of the best places to live as a veteran."