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Stars, stripes, and parades grace Commerce City’s Memorial Day festivities

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By Leo Wolfson

While certain holidays like July 4 are a time to celebrate the country, Memorial Day sings a slightly different tone. The day is a time to honor and reflect on veterans who have made the ultimate sacrifice serving their country.

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On Monday, May 29, the biggest Memorial Day parade in the state was held in Commerce City, in front of thousands of spectators and many vets. It was a tribute to those who have given so much for this country, yet asked for so little in return.

Many in attendance served some extent of time in the military or at least knew someone who had spent time in the line of duty.

“I’m trying to teach my kids the meaning of Memorial Day,” said John Smith. “We’ve had several family members who have served and we’re trying to pass along that love to our children.”

“I was reminded when I went out to the memorial out in Aurora, when I saw all those names, it just tugs at your heart, it just does,” said Air Force veteran Jim Dedan. Dedan was one of the float judges in this years’ parade.

The morning began with a medal commemoration ceremony led by U.S. Congressman Ed Perlmutter for Vietnam-era vets. Perlmutter presented the Vietnam Veteran Lapel Pin to the parade’s grand marshals, Korean War vet Robert Benzel, Vietnam War vets Robert Benzel, Johnny Gallegos, Fernando Serna and Ernesto Vasquez.

“When I got the letter from the city that just took me by complete surprise. It blew me away like a feather,” said Benzel with a grand smile. 

Benzel says he’s never been recognized in a public setting of that magnitude for his services before.

Perlmutter also presented medals to Commcerce City council members Mayor pro tem Rene Bullock and Councilman Rick Teter, who have both served in the armed forces.

Following the presentation, the Air Force Honor Guard Parade Element parachuted from the sky down onto Forest Drive and the parade below. With American flags emblazoned on their parachutes, the patriotic flyers gracefully descended to the ground, making for a truly beautiful site.

“It’s a real honor to come and be a part of the Memorial Day celebration. Just to be able to be a part of it is amazing. Honor all the people who have served the country and you know it’s really special for us,” said sky diver Jay Epstein.

Once these jumpers had completed their task there was only one more item on the agenda – the 2017 parade. 81 floats rode past Veteran’s Memorial Park and through Commerce City over the course of Memorial Day, making 2017 one of the largest in the parade’s 53-year history.

Some organizations travelled from far and wide to perform in the parade. The Ord High School band travelled from Nebraska to show off their pomp and circumstance. The El Jezebel Shriners came all the way from El Jebel, a town near Aspen, for the gathering.

“Everybody wants to be in this parade,” said Jodi Hardee, communications specialist for Commerce City.

Pounds of candy were tossed from cars, and hundreds of hands waved at the crowd. Some of the highlights including a procession of a good 20 fire trucks along with a few dozen old military vehicles supplied by Military Vehicle Collectors of Colorado. There were beauty queens and yes, even a few police dogs too.

What really set the tone for the Commerce City Memorial Day was its authenticity.

Marine Corps vet Gabe Martinez was one of the biggest heroes of the parade, yet stayed on the sidelines, supporting others. Martinez lost both his legs fighting in Afghanistan, but his selfless manner and deep passion for those who have served cast a much brighter light.

“It’s not just a holiday to me. Being my experiences being in the military and having lost a lot of brothers in arms, it’s a day of remembrance for those who didn’t make it home.  Every service member paid the sacrifice but not coming home is the ultimate. .. . Corporate America, they’ve kind of turned it into a day for deals, sales, this and that, selling your stuff. Just trying to remind America what the day really is. Keeping this day almost a sacred day,” said Martinez.  “I vowed that my children growing up will know it’s not just another day off from school. It’s a day to honor daddy’s brothers that didn’t come home.”