Memories of Vietnam were crowded inside of Dan Aguilar's mind as he awaited the start of Thursday's patriotic celebration at Virginia Parks Elementary School to honor him and about 25 other area veterans for Veteran's Day.
This event was in great contrast to the time after he came home from the unpopular war in Southeast Asia.
"My real war started when I got back," said Aguilar, who served in the 1st Air Cavalry during the Vietnam War in 1967 and 1968, was invited to attend the event by his fourth-grade granddaughter Madison Plata, who attends the school. "I didn't know why they sent us to Vietnam but I did not know why they treated us the way they did after we got back. A lot of them were like college students, a lot of them were anti-war demonstrators."
Aguilar was quietly remembering his friends who served alongside him - some of whom died in the war.
"I just want to remember my friends," said Aguilar, who lost many. "I think my fondest memories are the times we were together. When I left, I left a family of friends. I prayed they would all come home."
Now a Ceres resident, Aguilar served as a combat engineer, specializing in demolition efforts to cut landing zones and mine sweep the roads.
A few steps away, Fresno's Miguel Hernandez, dressed in Air Force fatigues, was chatting with Virginia Parks students and family members Elias Carrera and Janessa Vizcarra who invited him. Hernandez, who has spent 25 years in the Air Force and is now with the 120th Rescue Mission stationed in Moffet Field in San Jose, said he was honored to attend.
Children at the school honored the dads, grandfathers, great-grandfathers and uncles of classmates during a special gathering in the gym.
A slide show was shown depicting relatives of staff members serving in the military who could not be at the event.
The event featured the presentation of colors by the American Legion Color Guard and students singing several patriotic songs, including "This Land is Your Land," "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "You're a Grand Old Flag," and "God Bless America."
Student Leilah Elsumeri sang the National Anthem.
Members of the American Legion Honor Guard took their rifles outside the school gym and fired a 21-gun salute much like they fire at the funerals of fallen veterans. The three rapid volleys of gunfire excited the students who could hear the reports through an open door. The excitement was settled by the solemn sound of taps playing from an instrument held by Walt Butler.
The students presented donations for military service members for care packages to Charles Palmer Foundation through the Gold Star member from Manteca. Palmer said care packages boost morale to troops and are "thankful that people back home have not forgotten."
Veterans who attended included Fred Mingotti, who was in the Army military police; Peter Holloway, a 14-year sergeant in the Army Infantry; Ken Brewer, a Navy veteran from 1992-96; Jonathan Abraham; Ron Halliday, who served as a combat medic in Vietnam; James Casey, who served in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969; Josh Merrill, a U.S. Army medic; Daniel Castille, a four-year Marine Corp veteran; Paul Robles, an Army veteran of Vietnam; Martin Caballero, who served in the Army as an armored crewman; Jim Benton, a 1962-66 Navy seaman; Joshua Ernest, who served in the Marine Corps from 1999 to 2004; Mike Stanley, who served aboard the carrier USS Kitty Hawk from 1965 to 1969; Joshua Coelho, who just left the Marine Corps as a sergeant; Larry Stewart, who served in the Air Force; Dave Pratt who was in the Navy from 1966 to 1970 in Vietnam; Steve Whitney, a sergeant in the Marine Corps during Vietnam; Will Simms, a Navy veteran from 1968 to 1971; Walt Butler, who served aboard the USS Hornet and who is commander of the Ceres American Legion post; and Jeffrey Dean, who served 13 years in the U.S. Army.
At a Veteran's Day event held in Turlock, Stanislaus County District 2 Supervisor Vito Chiesa called on the crowd to remember the plight of veterans who come home from war.
"It's not a holiday," said Chiesa. "It's a day to celebrate our veterans and those who have sacrificed."
There are about 27,000 veterans living in Stanislaus County, and Chiesa emphasized the importance of providing them with help they need but often don't receive, including the issue of homeless veterans, mental illness, job training and physical health problems.