Red, white and blue were the predominant colors for Friday night’s 17th annual Illuminated Christmas Parade in Hinesville, with event participants enthusiastically welcoming the troops home for the holidays and honoring their service. The parade was hosted by the Liberty County Chamber of Commerce and the Liberty Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“We are so happy to have soldiers in the parade again this year. It’s the first time in eight years that we’ve had a brigade marching,” chamber and CVB CEO Leah Poole said. “We also have Maj. Gen. John ‘Mike’ Murray as our honorary grand marshal and a humane shelter dog, Violet, won the contest this year to be the grand marshal.”
Poole said this year is the 13th year she has worked on organizing the parade. The chamber has overseen the event for 17 years, she said.
“To my knowledge, we are the only illuminated Christmas parade anywhere close by,” Poole said. “The event always has great attendance, and families come out in droves to watch the floats, marching bands and soldiers.”
Maj. Gen. John “Mike” Murray, commanding general of the 3rd Infantry Division and senior commander of Fort Stewart-Hunter Army Airfield, said he was “appreciative and humbled” to serve as honorary grand marshal and looks forward to strengthening an “already-strong bond” between the military community and the Liberty County community.
“Participating as the Liberty County honorary grand marshal is an honor I share with the great soldiers, families and Department of the Army civilians of Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield, who all selflessly serve our great nation,” Murray said. “That service would just not be possible without the unwavering and steadfast support we receive from the Hinesville community and our supporters throughout Liberty County. Today is a great day to highlight the strong bonds between our communities, not only during the holidays, but year-round. I would like to also express my gratitude to all the organizations that support our soldiers, units and families during challenging times and are there to see us return home.”
The 3rd ID and Fort Stewart-Hunter Army Airfield personnel also are participating in Christmas parades in Brunswick, Vidalia, Richmond Hill, Guyton, Pembroke and Long County, according to the general.
“We are thankful that the 4th ‘Vanguard’ Brigade Combat Team and the 87th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion have safely returned home and were able to spend Thanksgiving with their families and loved ones,” Murray continued. “As always, I ask that all of us keep the thousands of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen — including more than 300 ‘Dog Face’ soldiers still forward deployed — in their thoughts and prayers. I would also ask for a very special prayer for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our great nation and for the families they left behind.”
First-time parade spectator Sgt. Philip Byrd and his wife, April, brought their children, Tyke, 3, and Taylin, 15 months, to view the procession. The Byrds’ son, Tyke, also participated in a martial-arts demonstration with the World Martial Arts Academy of Hinesville. Philip Byrd is assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team at Fort Stewart.
Chad Sharpeta and his 2-year old son, Aiden, checked out the parade for the second time. Sharpeta, a soldier assigned to the 130th Infantry, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, said he returned home to Fort Stewart from a deployment last December.
More than 50 soldiers assigned to the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team and the 3rd Infantry Division Band marched in the parade, saluting Murray and Command Sgt. Maj. Edd Watson as they passed the stands.
The parade’s canine grand marshal, Violet, a 2.5-year-old American Staffordshire terrier, perched atop a parade vehicle while being fed dog treats. The chamber’s grand marshal contest was held to highlight the plight of abandoned and mistreated pets, according to Amanda Scott, chamber public-relations director. Along with Violet, two shelter cats in need of caring homes were involved in the contest, Scott said.
A number of Liberty County students participated in the parade, including the Liberty County High School Band, Bradwell Institute’s Tiger Band and 200 of Bradwell’s JROTC cadets.
Tiger Band director Jeremy Fermin said about two-thirds of his band students are affiliated with Fort Stewart in some way.
“To know that so many of my students have parents who serve our country is humbling,” Fermin said. “I constantly tell the students that when we play the national anthem, performing it has to be the best because we are the home to Fort Stewart and we are performing to people who put their lives on the line for our country. Other schools simply play the national anthem because they have to; however, to the students here at Bradwell Institute, the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ truly means something.”
“Our cadets are enthused at the opportunity to perform in this parade both as representatives of Bradwell Institute and also for the city of Hinesville,” retired Army Lt. Col. James R. Wagner said. “Their dedication to their alma mater and our country is outstanding. For the cadets, it’s a chance to show their community that they’re serious about Bradwell Institute JROTC and are ready for their academic future.”
Not to be outdone by older students, Midway Middle School’s cheerleaders and step-team members and Snelson-Golden Middle School’s cheerleaders and dance team showed off some intricate moves for spectators.
Many of the community’s veterans groups, including the Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 789, the East Liberty American Legion, Post 321, and the Disabled American Veterans, Chapter 46, also honored service members by participating in the holiday event.
Several of the community’s churches, including St. Stephen Catholic Church in Hinesville, entered floats in the parade to remind parade-goers of “the reason for the season,” as well as to honor military members and their families.