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Don Pedro treated to early Memorial Day observance
Veterans include those from Korean, Vietnam wars
A Don Pedro student shakes the hand of Korean War veteran Jay Bell, 87, of Columbia, during a Friday morning ceremony to mark an early observance of Memorial Day, which was on Monday. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

Eight veterans from throughout a two-county region helped Don Pedro Elementary School students understand the meaning of Memorial Day at a Friday morning assembly.

The federal holiday started out as Decoration Day in 1868 after the Civil War as a way to honor those who died while serving in the country's armed forces. The holiday differs from Veterans Day, which celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans.

Showing up for the event were the American Volunteer Reserve (AVR) honor guard members who locally attend the funerals of veterans. They were Honor Guard Commander Lt. Col. Kurt Obispo, a Vietnam War veteran who lives in La Grange; 1st Sgt. John Foster, a Vietnam War veteran and Purple Heart medal recipient; Captain Jay Bell, who was a member of the Air Corps at the end of World War II and the Korean Conflict; Chief Melvin Vertner, 73, of Ceres, who served in Vietnam for two years and who was 9 years in the Reserve; Sgt. Eric Merrihew of Columbia, a veteran of the Iraq War and the Los Angeles riots as a National Guardsman; EO1 Lee Smith of Oakdale, a Vietnam War veteran who served three years and three years in reserves; Lt. Eric Domen of Ceres, who serves as chaplain; and Marine Sgt. Ray Castillo of Ceres, who has served 35 years including Panama, Desert Shield and Desert Storm and three tours in Iraq.

"We services to deceased veterans who passed away in war or passed away in sickness or illness," explained Sgt. Castillo. "We provide that 21-gun salute, playing of the taps and folding of the flag and present that flag to the family. It's an honor for us to do this. We don't get paid for this. We do this willingly on our own because we know what the sacrifice that these soldiers and veterans have given."

The veterans conducted a 21-gun salute accomplished by firing seven rifles with blanks three times. The sharp reports excited the students who were advised that everything would be safe. The students also sang the National Anthem on cue which was followed by the playing of taps. Students also watched as the veterans unfurled and refolded the American flag and presented it to Principal Tami Garcia.