BREWER, Maine — The table at the front of Brewer High School’s annual Veterans Remembrance and Celebration Ceremony was set for four, but no one was seated at it.
The table was set to honor military personnel held as prisoners of war and those still missing in action and was topped with a single, vibrant red rose.
As taps played in the background, Air Force Junior ROTC Capt. Matt Fern told attendees about the symbolism of everything on the table, from the pure white tablecloth to the empty glasses, to pieces of lemon and the rose.
“The single red rose symbolizes the blood they may have shed,” he said. The slice of lemon is to “remind us of their bitter fate.”
The white tablecloth represents the purity of their reasons for serving and the empty glasses symbolize that “they cannot toast with us,” Fern said.
While he spoke, the JROTC’s honor guard placed formal dress hats at the four empty seats, which represent the four branches of the military, then they saluted the symbolic table. At the end of the ceremony, a candle was lit to “illuminate their way home,” Fern said.
Students and staff at Brewer High School stood and applauded on Wednesday as military veterans and active duty personnel were escorted by the school’s JROTC cadets into the gymnasium for the annual veterans ceremony.
“Today we get to reach out and say thank you to our local veterans,” Rachel Caron, student council president and master of ceremonies, said to kick off the hourlong event.
In addition to the POW-MIA presentation, the ceremony also included information about the history of Veterans Day and the Purple Heart medal and speeches by U.S. Army Maj. Darryl Lyon, retired U.S. Air Force Col. Robert Freniere, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, representatives of U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and the Rev. Carl Schreiber.
“I proudly salute you for your service,” Freniere said to the veterans and active military personnel in the audience.
Lyon dedicated his speech to his father, a Korean War veteran who served his country, then returned home to work, raise a family and give back to his community. His father and other veterans are the country’s true heroes, he said.
“Celebrate their contributions to selfless service,” Lyon said.
Veteran and Brewer resident Ernie Park, who served eight years with the U.S. Marines and 32 years with the U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard, had never attended the annual ceremony at Brewer High and said he was impressed.
“I thought it was wonderful,” he said.
Military service runs strong in Park’s family.
“My father was in World War I. I have his bugle. My son and my daughter are active duty and my brother was in the Navy,” he said. “We’ve pretty much been in all the wars.”
Park, who is a proud member of the state’s Veterans of Foreign Wars organization, himself served as a machine gunner during the Korean War, worked at the former Dow Air Force Base during the Vietnam War and retired in 1991, shortly after the first Persian Gulf War.
“From enlisted to general, can you tell I’m proud?” asked his daughter Lt. Col. Debbie Kelley, who serves as an executive officer with the Maine Air National Guard’s 101st Air Refueling Wing.
Superintendent Daniel Lee, a U.S. Air Force veteran, sat beside Bill Knight, an 88-year-old World War II veteran from Bradford, who served in both the Army Air Corps and the U.S. Navy.
“I’m proud to walk in here [as a veteran] and I’m even more proud to be a part of a school that takes the time to honor” those who have served this county, Lee said after the event ended. “I’m immensely proud of our kids and our school.”
During Freniere’s time at the podium, he said he has given a lot of speeches in his life at numerous veterans events and, “I have never seen a high school celebrate like you did today.”