East Lyme - Three of the town's young war heroes and an 88-year-old Hartford man who fought for the right to fly in World War II were honored at a vigil Saturday that served as a precursor for today's Memorial Day parade.
The East Lyme Veterans Council organized the vigil, where, as darkness approached, the East Lyme Middle School choir sang "God Bless America," and the veterans and townspeople who filled the Town Green lit candles to honor those who made "the ultimate sacrifice" for the country.
"It means a lot to me to be able to come here and light a candle with my fellow veterans," said retired Army Spc. Ryan K. Harris, who is a grand marshal in today's parade along with Alex Lozano and Brent Walker.
The men, all in their 20s, are graduates of East Lyme High School who were wounded in action and received the Purple Heart. Harris served in Afghanistan at the same time as his father, Keith Harris, a member of the Special Forces. He is now attending college.
Lozano, who was shot in the back and lost a kidney while serving in Iraq in 2008, said the honor of being a grand marshal had rendered him "speechless." In civilian life, Lozano is continuing to serve his community as a volunteer emergency medical technician with the Flanders Fire Department.
Walker, hit by a suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest while on foot patrol in Baqubah, Iraq, still has shrapnel and burn wounds all over his body. He said he regretted not being able to continue to fight.
"I had two deployments under my belt when I got hit, but (the enemy) can't keep me down," he said.
Walker is attending college and working this summer as a ranger at Rocky Neck State Park. He is the vice president of the veterans' organization at Three Rivers Community College and a committed supporter of the Wounded Warrior Project, which supports wounded veterans.
Connie Nappier Jr., 88, of Hartford, one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen who defied the racial barrier to serve as pilots in World War II, stood tall inside the gazebo to tell his story.
Nappier, who had dreamed of being a pilot since he was 7, convinced his parents to let him enlist in the Air Force, even though he was under age. As an African-American, he said he was not wanted as a pilot, but he and his fellow trainees defied the Jim Crow laws and eventually were granted the right to fly by President Harry S. Truman. Nappier was still in training when the war ended.
"I have only one regret; that in learning how to fly, I learned how to kill," Nappier said. "However, if any country threatens this country, I would be the first in line to fight, and I know I'm not alone."
A mother in the audience whispered to her son, "That's the guy to sit and talk with."
Today's parade kicks off at 2 p.m. near the green at St. John's Episcopal Church.