"Everybody appreciates what they're doing, and we can't forget that everybody has a part in this big picture," said Army Command Sergeant Major Otis Smith Jr., Saturday's keynote speaker.
Not only should the service men and women be honored, but also their support network at home, Smith said. The celebrations were also a chance to show unity among the various branches of the military, to "remind people that hey, it's one team, one fight," he added.
Danville Police Chief Jeff Peek said seeing the turnout of active service men and women, as well as veterans "tells me we're doing what we wanted to do. We're saying, 'Thank you.' He said the city plans on making the parade an annual event, though it might be moved to Armed Forces day in the future.
Saturday morning's march was led by the American Legion Post 46 color guard, the post's flag born down Main Street by Robert Sanders.
"It's an honor to be here in a parade, and to those who had passed," the Vietnam veteran said. "I was proud, I was real proud. It was an honor."
Three military fly-overs
The parade slowed as it traveled through town to coincide with the first of three military fly-overs. The imposing C-130 Hercules cargo plane lumbered over Main and drew all eyes as it passed about 10 a.m. Less than an hour later, two F-16 Fighting Falcon jets screamed overhead.
"It must be going about one million miles an hour!" young Casey Davis of Cincinnati told his grandparents.
The third aerial display, a B-52 Stratofortress bomber, rumbled by at 2 p.m. Danville's three fly-overs were half of only 6 scheduled in the entire nation, said fly-by organizer and veteran Jack Hendricks. They had been specially approved by the Pentagon, then through each home base of the pilots. It was a great honor for Danville to be honored with three, he said.
"I thought that it would be very educational," said Wanda Davis who brought grandsons Casey and Sam Davis with her to see the planes and parade.
Sam Davis said he thought that the parade was an important reminder of sacrifices made by soldiers and their families, as well as the more than 3,000 who died of Sept. 11 three years ago.
"I felt bad about people that lost their loved ones," he said. The parade was needed, he added "so no one gets forgotten."
Bringing back memories for veterans
Listening to the howl of the passing jets, it was impossible for Vietnam veteran Jack Hazlett to forget old memories. Jets had saved their lives in combat more than a few times, said Hazlett's friend and fellow veteran Randy Hawkins. Both men sported ball caps and jeans, with faded army jackets as silent testimonies.
"We came out to show support, not only for ourselves, but also for the other guy, the ones still in Iraq," Hazlett said.
"We wear these uniforms with pride," Hawkins said, the cloth name badge on his coat bearing a slightly frayed edge. "I don't think veterans are supported enough. Without them we wouldn't have any freedom today."
Both men joined the crowd as it continued to wander toward the vacant Sav-A-Lot building. Amid the kettle corn tent and sizzle of Polish sausage a white stage had been set for the guest speakers.
In his National Guard uniform, Aaron Castro watched traffic resume on Main Street. He joined the service as a senior in high school, on Sept. 25, 2001.
"Like the song says, my country was under attack, and I had to defend it," Castro said.
While marching in the parade, Castro saw his young cousin wave and heard him call out his name. His family was proud of joining the service, they said, with several other relatives already in the service. It was a thrill to be part of Saturday's ceremonies, agree Castro.
"It was an adrenaline rush," he said of the people who came out "just to say 'we support you."
Serving in the military, he added simply, "is what I do. It's my country."