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East Lyme — Students outside Flanders Elementary School eagerly waved American flags to welcome a Wreaths Across America convoy Wednesday morning as it approached the school.
The children then gathered in a school ceremony honoring military personnel for their sacrifices. The ceremony, attended by community members, officials, veterans and their families, featured songs, tributes and the bestowing of wreaths to two Gold Star families.
The Wreaths Across America truck, which started in Maine and stopped in Connecticut, will travel to Virginia to bestow more than 5,000 wreaths on veterans' graves Saturday at Arlington National Cemetery. The nonprofit organization delivers wreaths to cemeteries across the nation and to international locations such as Normandy, France.
In expressing her gratitude to participants, Principal Linda Anania highlighted Wreaths Across America's mission to "remember, honor and teach."
"We need to make sure our children have the respect and responsibility they need to be lifelong learners," said Anania, reflecting on the meaning of hosting the event at the school.
Robin Soule, a third-grade teacher who spearheaded the event, asked two local families to come forward in recognition of their loved ones who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Skip Petras, the Connecticut coordinator for Wreaths Across America, gave a wreath in honor of Sgt. Richard Lewis Parsons of the U.S. Army Air Corps to his family: Pearl Parsons Gilmour, Vicki Bush and Michelle Bass.
Parsons' granddaughter, Bass, read aloud a tribute from Bush, her mother. Parsons was missing in action after his plane was shot down in Germany during World War II, she said. Within two years, his family learned that a grave site had been made for him in Gerstungen, Germany, where residents placed flowers and a wooden cross, engraved with the names of the fallen American soldiers.
Parsons was buried six years later in his hometown of Bainbridge, N.Y., and Bush, an Old Lyme resident and former Flanders teacher, later created a garden near the school in his memory.
Kathy Sterling and Ellen Lombardi received a wreath to honor their brother, Pfc. John G. Curtin. Curtin, who earned a Purple Heart in Vietnam, loved baseball, had a great imagination and crafted songs that he and his family members would sing, said Sterling.
"It means more to me than I can tell you," said Sterling, a town resident, about Wednesday's ceremony.
More than a dozen veterans stood for their respective military branches when the East Lyme High School Band played an anthem for each branch of the military. The ceremony included "The Star-Spangled Banner," the ringing of the bells and taps, as well as a "Thank you Soldiers" song by the elementary school students.
"Thank you, oh thank you, men and women brave and strong," sang the hundreds of elementary schoolchildren. "To those who served so gallantly, we sing this grateful song."
Petras gave a wreath to First Selectman Paul Formica for the town and to Superintendent James Lombardo for the schools.
The idea to host the event at Flanders originated from a lunchtime conversation among teachers who were considering ways to commemorate Veterans Day and honor veterans.
"We are so incredibly honored to have Wreaths Across America make a stop at Flanders School," Soule said in a statement. "It is humbling to be able to pay our respects to the local Gold Star Families as their family members are recognized for making the ultimate sacrifice."
The convoy is also bringing to Arlington an arrangement, made by his family in Waterford, in honor of Staff Sgt. Thomas Hull of the U.S. Marine Corps.
The convoy, a Wal-Mart truck escorted by vehicles and the Connecticut Patriot Guard, visited the Chelsea Parade in Norwich, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London and the USS Nautilus in Groton on Wednesday as part of its Connecticut tour. The convoy stopped Tuesday in East Hartford, Hartford, Cromwell, Cheshire and Old Saybrook, according to the itinerary.
Morrill Worcester, owner of the Worcester Wreath Co. in Harrington, Maine, started Wreaths Across America in 1992.