JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Hundreds of students from Joseph Stilwell Military Academy of Leadership gathered Friday for a Memorial Day ceremony to honor fallen veterans.
It was a day of reflection for the students and their families as they paid tribute to local veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice.
“I came in right at 2001 before 9/11 happened, so there's always a lot of emotions and a lot of friends I've lost along the way, so it's always emotional for me,” U.S. Navy Operation Spc. 1st Class William Welty said.
Welty said he was happy to see the younger generation getting involved.
"It's a great honor knowing that the kids are being taught a nice lesson that most of us grew up (with) on a regular basis,” Welty said.
The names of more than a thousand local veterans were placed on flags that were flown during the ceremony. The display put things into perspective, the students said.
"I felt shocked that I saw so many flags representing people that died for us, for our freedom,” eighth-grader Daniel Harding said.
"It makes me feel grateful that we have people that would fight for our country and would do anything for us to be free,” seventh-grader Amire Talley said.
Marcus Mason is one of those people. The Purple Heart recipient is a retired Marine Corps sergeant who suffered a traumatic brain injury when an IED exploded under his truck in Iraq. He spoke to the crowd about the importance of leadership and history.
"It is a big honor. I remember as a child seeing veterans come and speak to me when I was their age, so to be here and do the same, it's an honor,” Mason said. “It is up to them. They're the youth to keep that memory alive and honor them."
Communities in Schools organized the event as part of its Americorps VetSuccess program, an initiative that helps veterans and connects students with positive veteran and military role models.
Stilwell hopes to continue the ceremony as a yearly tradition.