TRADITION — Three soldiers who served a yearlong tour of duty in Afghanistan received a hero's welcome Friday from more than 1,500 students at Palm Pointe Educational Research School at Tradition.
Students donning red, white and blue and waving mini-American flags gave the returning troops a rousing welcome as the nation's newest veterans paraded in the school's parking lot, led by the Fort Pierce Central High School ROTC and escorted by a sheriff's cruiser and Engine 17 from the St. Lucie County Fire District.
Army Spc. Edward Ellison, whose two sons attend Palm Pointe; Spc. Alex James, whose wife, Melissa teaches kindergarten at the school; and Spc. Michael Brayman of St. Cloud were the men of the hour. The trio served together as part of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and returned home to the United States on Saturday.
During the ceremony, which included patriotic songs performed by the school band and choir, Ellison expressed his gratitude for the warm welcome-home, which he said was a nice surprise.
"I didn't expect this," said Ellison, over students cheering and chanting "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!"
"The kids used to send us letters when we were in Afghanistan. We just want to say thank you."
Fifth-grader Jasmyn Gonzalez, 11, voiced her patriotic gratitude during the celebration.
"I know that they were fighting for us and I'm pretty happy they made it home safe," Gonzalez said, clutching an American flag. "When I grow up, I want to help other people, too, and make a difference in the world."
Faculty, staff and students also honored 11 additional veterans with ties to the school.
Sean Farrell, whose daughter is a fifth-grader at the school, served in the Army during the Gulf War in 1991 and lost mobility in his legs in a freak training accident in Korea in 1994, which left him wheelchair-bound. Farrell was thankful for the ceremony, adding that many veterans often go unrecognized.
"I think this is great. It's really nice that someone is recognizing us," Farrell said. "You don't see that too often."
Event organizer and kindergarten teacher Lorri Rudzinski said the celebration also served as a learning experience for the students.
"I want them to realize freedom really isn't free," she said, with tears in her eyes. "It was a prayer answered that they came home safely."