COLUMBIA — Early morning rain didn't stop the crowds from gathering to watch the Salute to Veterans parade Monday in downtown Columbia.
Onlookers from Columbia and beyond came to celebrate the 21st annual Memorial Day weekend celebration to honor members past and present of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Rachel Diemler of Fulton said she came out because the day is a sign of the country's freedom.
"It's just a way we can respect our troops while still having a way to have fun," she said of the parade.
The American flag could be seen at any standing point along Broadway throughout the event. There were American flag shirts, blankets, top hats, folding chairs, umbrellas and shorts. Prisoner of war flags with the phrase "You Are Not Forgotten" were attached to parking meters.
Boy Scouts passed out flags to young children. Some applauded Marines carrying flags, and the Boone County Fire District Pipes & Drums marched and performed patriotic songs.
Jefferson City resident Sara Dickson said Monday's events are a way to show appreciation for freedom, which is what she said Memorial Day is all about.
"It was fantastic," she said of the parade.
Following the parade, a ceremony was conducted in front of the Boone County Courthouse, where honored guests were recognized and memorial wreaths were placed.
"As long as we gather today, they are not forgotten," said Master of Ceremonies Lt. Col. Eric Cunningham.
U.S. Navy Capt. and Hall of Fame Astronaut Robert Gibson was one of 10 honored guests and served as the parade's grand marshal "since he had such a brilliant astronaut career," event organizer Mary McCleary Posner said.
Gibson, who lives in Murfreesboro, Tenn., entered the U.S. Navy in 1969 and flew combat missions between 1972 and 1975 in Southeast Asia. In 1978, NASA chose Gibson for astronaut training and, between 1984 and 1985, he was the commander of four out of five space shuttle missions. In 2003, Gibson was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame.
This year's theme for the Salute To Veterans weekend was "Honoring and Remembering One Giant Leap for Mankind" in recognition of the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's famous first words upon stepping on the moon.
"It's a tremendous honor to be invited to participate in this weekend," Gibson said.
The Salute to Veterans Celebration started in 1989, when McCleary Posner decided a larger celebration was needed than there had been in past years. McCleary Posner's mother had said for the past 50 years, the only event was five men gathering at the Boone County Courthouse for five minutes of speeches.
The first year, McCleary Posner organized a parade with two World War II planes, a P-51 and a B-25. But the annual holiday celebration grew.
"Instead of five people, you have 25,000," McCleary Posner said of the current event.
McCleary Posner said she sometimes works up to 50 hours a week and prepares year-round for the six days of Memorial Day events. Her many hours are strictly volunteer work to show her gratitude for veterans.
"I do it for love," she said.