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The theme for Farmington High School’s 2019 Homecoming was “A Knight of Remembrance” as an honor to the U.S. military branches, and as part of homecoming festivities, the Farmington Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (JROTC) organized an assembly Friday morning in the field house featuring the Veterans Honor Tour of the Heartland.

Thirty area military veterans were brought in before flying to Washington, D.C. to tour the military memorials. The honorees arrived on a charter bus escorted by a member of the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Each veteran was then escorted into the building by two of the Farmington High School Cheerleading Squad. Members of the Patriot Guard were on hand outside the field house holding American flags. Inside, the American Red Cross provided doughnuts and coffee for the attendees.

The veterans entered the gym through a salute line of JROTC cadets standing at attention. The assembly began with a presentation of the colors and a Queen Anne Salute while the Farmington High School Choraliers sang the National Anthem. Then the JROTC presented the flag of each branch of the military as the Farmington High School Band played the Service Flag Medley.

Retired Air Force Colonel Randy Sparks, senior AFJROTC instructor at the high school, gave the opening remarks. Prior to the start of the assembly, he offered an explanation of why there was a POW/MIA table located near the entrance of the gym, accompanied by a cadet.

“It’s a ceremony we do on an occasion like this where we are honoring veterans,” Sparks said. “We always try to remember those that aren’t with us. Prisoners of war, those who were held captive during conflict and those missing in action, those who have not yet been returned to their families and to their country. [The cadet] will present each of these emblems as a narrator tells the significance of each of these emblems.”

To a respectful and silent audience of about 1,500, Cadet Lt. Col. Alexander Hatch read the meaning of each of the items displayed on the POW/MIA table as Cadet SSgt. Avary Gray presented each item.

“Ladies and gentlemen, as you look to my right, you may have noticed a small table in a place of honor — it is set for one,” Hatch said. “This table is our way of symbolizing the fact that members of our profession of arms are missing from our midst. They are commonly called POW’s or MIA’s. We call them brothers. They are unable to be with us today, so let us remember them.

“This table, set for one, is small. It symbolizes the frailty of one prisoner, alone, against his oppressors. Remember.

“The tablecloth is white, symbolizing the purity of their intentions to respond to their country’s call to arms. Remember.

“The single red rose displayed in a vase reminds us of the families and loved ones our comrades in arms who keep the faith awaiting their return. Remember.

“The yellow ribbon tied so prominently on the base, is reminiscent of the yellow ribbon worn upon on the lapel and breasts of thousands who bear witness to their unyielding determination to demand a proper accounting of our missing. Remember.

“The candle — the candle is lit — symbolizing the upward reach of their unconquerable spirit. Remember.

“The slice of lemon is on the bread plate to remind us of their bitter fate. Remember.

“The salt upon the bread plate, symbolic of the family’s tears as they wait. Remember.

“The glass is inverted. They cannot toast with us today. Remember.

“The chair — the chair is empty. They are not here to celebrate with us. Remember.

“All of you who served with them and called them comrades, depended upon their life and their aid and relied upon them, for surely they have not forsaken you. Remember.

“Until the day they come home, always remember.”

In honor of the missing and killed in action, Cadet 2nd Lt. Caleb Dougherty played taps.

Jerry Sneathern of Veterans Honor Tour thanked Farmington High School for their efforts in showing their appreciation for the armed services.

“Thank you for giving us this fantastic celebration, it’s really moving in many ways,” he said. “We sure appreciate it. We will be leaving here and heading for St. Louis to the airport, and there we will fly to Washington, D.C.

"We will be going by the Pentagon. Tomorrow we will be visiting Arlington Cemetery, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Iwo Jima Marine Memorial, The Korean Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, World War II Memorial and the Washington Monument. Sunday before we leave we will go by the U.S. Capitol, The White House and The Americans Disabled for Life Memorial.

“I want to thank you for this fantastic send-off, it means a lot.”

Dr. Donald Gagliano — chief of staff for the John J. Pershing Medical Center at Poplar Bluff, as well as an Army Veteran — spoke about his experiences in war and the importance of honoring veterans.

“All of your presence here is worthwhile, if for no other reason than to protect memories,” he said. “That’s what this is about. It’s about memories that you can’t forget, you don’t want to forget. You deserve what this is all about. Enjoy the memorials, but enjoy the time together. Enjoy being with the spirit of fellow warriors.

"It always been said that the indomitable spirit of the American Warrior is what wins wars, and that will never end. What I see here today, I can tell you, I believe that’s a message that you take with you as you embark on the honor flight. What a great thing that Jerry and his wife and others have given to you and given to all those who served.

“As chief of staff at the veteran’s hospital, it’s my responsibility to maintain that spirit of thankfulness and giving to all veterans who served over the years, and every veteran I come in touch with, to me gives me thrills every day.”

Col. Sparks gave the closing remarks, speaking on the topic of what it means to revere those who served the country in uniform.

“…Students and faculty you are here this morning to participate in a noble effort,” he said. “It’s the sole nonprofit mission of the Honor Flight to honor America’s veterans for all of their sacrifices. They transport our heroes to Washington, D.C. to visit and reflect at our national war memorials. …With honor and closure in the form of a trip that many could never afford or arrange on their own.

“These heroes today are on their way to the nation’s capital for one more military tour of honor. We are here to thank them and encourage them on this special journey. Veterans, this week our school paid special tribute to all of you as well as those currently serving in the military through our homecoming theme for this year — ‘A Knight to Remember.’ Today, our parade floats are not decorated with Superman, The Hulk or Spider-Man. This year our homecoming floats honor our real-life superheroes.

Sparks told the veterans that the assembled crowd honored them and America’s freedoms and the price paid to preserve them. He explained that although the school colors were black and gold, their hearts ‘bleed a rich red white and blue.’

“Today and every day, honor our heroes. Remember their achievements, their courage and their dedication to duty. But mostly we thank them for their sacrifices. As we visit with those heroes that are joined with us in this group today, we are reminded as well of those who are here with us only in spirit. We stand in the midst of true patriots, and while they nobly did their duty on behalf of us, we now do our duty in honoring them and their families.

“Students, the veterans that we honor today come from all walks of life, but share some fundamental qualities we should all hope to emulate in our own lives. Courage, pride, determination, selflessness, dedication and the integrity to do what’s right, no matter the danger in doing so.”

Sparks quoted the third verse of the patriotic song, "America the Beautiful," explaining the meaning of several of the verses and how it relates to those who sacrificed their all for their country.

“I submit to you this morning America’s beauty comes not from its gold or from its amber waves of grain,” he said. “I submit that America’s beauty comes foremost from the strength and courage of our veterans and their families, who more than self their country loved, and liberating strife. We owe them our gratitude and we honor them in the memories of whom they served.

“Each generation of America’s warriors have prayed that their war will be the end of war. That mankind see no more of conflict, of tyranny, of oppression. Sadly, though each fight was heroically won, the price of freedom remains high and there’s still payment to be made.”

Sparks stressed that there are still thousands on the battlefields of the world today. They are still standing watch, still fighting freedom’s fight and still paying the price.

“…These here today represent that great generation, when history and freedom beckoned, and so many answered. Today’s heroes in the military have fine role models to look up to. Role models like those here with us here this morning.”

Following the assembly, The Choraliers sang several patriotic songs in the field house as the audience dispersed.

For more information on Veterans Honor Tour, contact Jerry Sneathern at 573-718-9224 or jerrysneathern@yahoo.com.

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Mark Marberry is a reporter for the Farmington Press and Daily Journal. He can be reached at 573-518-3629, or at mmarberry@farmingtonpressonline.com

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