Marching among heroes

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol
  • U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center Public Affairs
"Left. Left. Left-right-left."  

It was the first time I wore a flag harness and I didn't quite realize how much the heat would affect me as I marched in my Airman Battle Uniform. 

Marching in temperatures of 85 degrees Fahrenheit with high humidity is somewhat unusual for this area of the Upper Midwest of the United States, but not unheard of. It was July after all.  

Being just before 1 p.m. on July 4, our march was going to begin soon. I also didn't initially realize what an honor it would be for me to be a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Post 9084, Color Guard for the Independence Day parade in my hometown of Wakefield, Mich. 

Soon, though, I was flushed with pride.  

I stood in the third row -- just behind a former Army Ranger and in front of a U.S. Navy veteran. In all, there were probably 20 of us forming the color guard. I was to carry one of three POW/MIA flags. Next to carrying the U.S. flag or my service flag, which were in front of me, I found this duty to be most honorable.  

Besides flag bearers, we also had rifle bearers. Each carried a vintage M-1 Garand -- the rifle of choice during World War II, the Korean War, and to some extent, the Vietnam War. It's a rifle that revolutionized the U.S. military when it was introduced in 1936. According to official history on the rifle, it was the first semi-automatic rifle to be delivered to light infantry in any nation. 

With the flags, the M-1s and the veterans, I felt as if I were in a time machine. In my mind, I could recall the many parades and color guards I witnessed as a child on the very same streets I was about to march on. I could also see each of the veterans around me in their element while they were active service members. 

Whether it was in WW II, Korea, Vietnam or today's Global War on Terrorism, I could also see how we each were remembering the gift we received from our forefathers on July 4, 1776. The gift we chose as service members to defend with our lives -- the gift of freedom.  

Then the parade started. In my hometown, the color guard leads the parade. That's the way it has always been because displaying and honoring the American flag on Independence Day is the proper way to recognize America's birthday. This year it was birthday number 232.  

Calling cadence and marching orders for the color guard was Marine turned Army Soldier John "Chummy" Ozzello. Chummy is well versed in the skill of military drill. He can trace his experience as far back as 1958 when he was an Army drill instructor at Fort Dix, N.J. 

He told me a story of when he became a drill instructor and his supervising noncommissioned officer said to "not march them like Marines," which was what he knew at the time. 

I laughed when I heard that.  

To the tune of Chummy calling "left-right-left ... yooooour left-right-left," we all marched in unision. Through my peripheral vision, I saw people stand as we approached. The people who stood were not only the young, but also senior citizens in wheelchairs. In a way, after seeing this, I almost felt like I wasn't worthy.  

Then I heard something that I won't soon forget. It sounded like a grandmother scolding a grandchild as we were approaching. I heard her say, "Stand up! Can't you see that is the American flag? Stand up right now!" She said it so loudly it nearly brought Chummy out of his cadence call. 

It also marked for me the importance of families passing on patriotic pride and a family's role in supporting the warfighter from the home front. That American flag the grandmother was describing to the grandchild has always been a reminder to me how families play a vital role in the success of our military and defending freedom. 

The thought made me gleeful for a second as I recalled my family and their tremendous support for my military career. 

More specifically it made me think of my wife, Bobbi, and what she and my children have endured every time I deployed for an operation.  

I saw and experienced this before we even got to Main Street where the majority of the parade watchers were gathered. As we approached Main Street, we stopped for a quick rest and a reaffirmation of our instructions from Chummy. Then we returned to our state of attention and marched on.  

About a half-mile later, Chummy called the color guard to a halt and a left face, where we turned and executed a "present arms," or salute, with the flags and the ceremonial guns. Local students then took the lead in reciting the "Pledge of Allegiance." 

When they finished, Chummy thanked them, called us all back to attention, and we continued down Main Street, right past my family and extended family. I heard one of my granddaughters say, "Look! There's Grampa!" I cracked a smile when I heard it.  

By the time the parade ended and the color guard was dismissed, I stopped for a minute to get my bearings. I wondered if perhaps a child who saw me and the color guard would consider military service as I once did as a youngster. 

Or, I speculated if the display of flags and veterans moved someone in the crowd to feel pride in their country. Maybe someone even shed a tear for those veterans who are no longer with us and will not march again.  

To me, I was marching among heroes -- both present and past. I was marching among the families of heroes as well -- those who watched us move down the street. 

It's a march I wish everyone could experience and learn from as I did. Hometown heroes and patriots are what drive me to be my best. To be among them is an experience I will never forget.  

"Left. Left. Left-right-left."