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Staff Writer

PEPPERELL — The center of town near Town Hall is usually three or four people deep with onlookers when parades turn onto Park Street, and this year’s Memorial Day observance was no exception.

“OK, this is what you’ve been waiting for all those years. Look sharp,” retired Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Griffis said to the VFW Post 3291 firing team as they followed the color guard, World War II veterans and parade grand marshal Norman Paradis uphill toward the Community Church.

One team member was Lt. Col. Caryn Heard, commander of the Devens Reserve Forces Training Area, participating at own her request for a second year.

The crowd responded with applause and “thank yous” loud enough to touch the hearts of every uniformed active duty and discharged veteran in the parade.

The observance had begun long before, when VFW firing team members broke out their M-1 Garand rifles, got dressed and walked through the woods to St. Joseph Cemetery for a Mass conducted by Rev. Paul Ring before 8 a.m.

Later, post chaplain Raymond Hurley prayed at the Vietnam monument in front of the VFW as the parade formed on Lowell Road. VFW Commander Joseph Moore and Ladies Auxiliary President Linda Butler planted a wreath.

As the parade progressed down Tarbell Street and into Railroad Square, where Scouts, Little League and 4-H Club members joined, things began to build. The Main Street bridge was lined with residents as a wreath was thrown into the Nashua River to honor Navy veterans, while the North Middlesex Regional High School Band rendered the Navy Hymn.

The crowd had grown larger still when parade participants stopped to rest at the Main Street rotary. Bottled water magically appeared from the crowd — another Pepperell tradition.

Crowd noise that welcomed the veterans at the front of the parade continued in the distance as they, firefighters and police entered Blood Cemetery on Park Street for another wreath-laying and commemorative volley of fire, and the playing of “Taps.”

Firing team members broke ranks and walked to the Revolutionary War Monument and the town flag pole. Individually, with rifles laid over their arms, they passed the silent graves of Col. William Prescott and other Pepperell men who fought at Bunker Hill, each decorated with a flag placed by Boy and Girl Scouts.

At a podium before the Community Church, VFW Past Commander Paul Rakiey introduced selectmen, Mrs. Ellen Hargraves, (the wife of Rep. Robert Hargraves, who was marching in Groton), and grand marshal Paradis. Moore and Butler laid a wreath at the World War I and II and Korean War Monuments in front of the church and Rev. Priscilla Lawrence offered prayers.

Selectman Chairman Darrell Gilmore, the guest speaker, said he was honored to participate.

“I thank the Pepperell VFW, Ladies Auxiliary, all of our active-duty military and all who participated in the parade,” he said.

“Today is a somber day for our nation. It is also a great day. We must remember all who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom. If it were not for them, America certainty would not be what it is today, and very possibly not be at all,” Gilmore said.

“Today America’s freedom is a shining star of hope for those in countries who are not free. Throughout the country millions of Americas will be involved in ceremonies and parades just like this one. This is a day that we set aside our differences to support our fallen heroes past and present.

“As a child growing up in Pepperell, my parents used to bring me to this very spot to watch the Memorial Day services. I used to be amazed with the bands, the military vehicles, the gun salutes, and the lone bugler. As I got older I began to realize the importance of Memorial Day and that it’s just not a parade with a lot of trucks and people marching.

“It’s been about 15 years since I can remember watching a Memorial Day parade. For the last 15 years I have been assigned to a traffic post as a police officer or I have been participating as a selectman,” he said.

Gilmore related how annoyed he had become the previous day when — as a police sergeant on traffic duty — he advised an increasingly-agitated young woman that she would have to wait 15 to 20 minutes for the parade to pass.

“I think she wanted to get to the mall,” he said. “It saddens me to think that there are some people out there who do not understand the importance of freedom or the cost associated with living in a free society.

“I thank all the parents who have brought their children here today. I ask you to teach them the importance of Memorial Day. Teach them to show respect for our nation’s fallen heroes. Remember, freedom is not free,” he concluded.

Unnoticed by the crowd, VFW firing team members silently came to attention when Lt. Col. Heard and Command Sgt. Maj. Griffis — with military precision — placed a wreath near the little semicircle of American flags before the Revolutionary War monument.