This year's Parade of 1,000 Flags lived up to its legacy as Ridgecrest's signature event. On Saturday the parade, including Burroughs High School marching band, local luminaries and -- of course -- a sea of red, white and blue, made its way up South China Lake Boulevard and into Freedom Park. After the flag-bearers planted their colors in Remembrance Park to form the Field of Remeberance, a heartfelt 9/11 program spoke of the legacy of the historic event.
First up was a bagpipe medley by Zack Snyder and the Kern County Pipe Band, followed by a special arrangement of "God Bless America." James Bell from the Ridgecrest Exchange Club served as Master of Ceremonies for the event.
After the China Lake Color Guard posted the colors, the Farris Family Singers led the crowd in the National Anthem and Boy Scout Troop 35 member Andrew Quakenbush led the flag salute.
The Invocation was given by Michael Taulvee, Navy Chaplain, remembering the 2,976 people who lost their lives on September 11 nearly 18 years ago. Touching on what would be a recurring theme among speakers, Taulvee said, "We pause to remember those moments of horror and pray for those left scarred by those terrible events. We also remember the incredible courage displayed by those who ran towards disaster to help their fellow man," referring to first responders.
Exchange Club President Timothy Neipp gave a welcoming speech from the Exchange Club, which sponsors the event along with NAWS China Lake and other community sponsors.
Mayor Peggy Breeden gave a heart-felt thank to everyone in attendance and everyone who made the event possible.
"All I want to do is say welcome to the most wonderful city -- not in Kern County, not in California but in the entire United States," Breeden added.
Commander Pete Benson from NAWS China Lake spoke about remembering those who lost their lives September 11, 2001 — "the day that our freedom was attacked."
"We are also here to honor those who continue to risk their lives to protect that freedom," he continued.
Benson offered a personal remembrance, waking up on September 11, 2001, after having recently joined the Navy nine months previously. He said he saw the news on the TV and wondered what it meant for the country and for himself and his service in the Navy.
He said the events of that day shaped the lives of himself and his family for the next 18 years as he served on active duty.
"It has shaped the majority of my adult life serving as a Naval officer," he added. "I have been to Europe, the middle east, Africa and Asia as a direct result of the attacks on that day."
He added that "it's not just those that serve who help to protect the freedoms of this nation. It's the support and love of communities such as this one here in Ridgecrest. It's the steadfast backing that our local military members, wounded warriors, law enforcement, firefighters and emergency personnel receive on a daily basis from this community that encourages them to continue to protect our way of life."
Benson repeated a quote from President Barack Obama in 2014: "As Americans, we draw strength from you. For your love is the ultimate rebuke to the hatred of those who attacked us that bright blue morning. They sought to do more than bring down buildings or murder our people. They sought to break our spirit and to prove to the world that their power to destroy was greater than our power to preserve and to build. But you and America proved them wrong."
Benson added, "We carry on because as Americans we do not give in to fear, ever" and described the Ridgecrest/China Lake community as "the embodiment of that quote."
Clayton Fowler, from Congressman Kevin McCarthy's office, said although he was the age of many of the kids present on 9/11, "I remember that day very vividly." Fowler spoke not only about remembering 9/11, but acknowledging what the community has been through over the past couple of months in a reference to the Searles earthquakes.
"You have all come together on more than one occasion," he said.
State Senator Shannon Grove, a frequent visitor to this event, said she remembers the historic day.
"I remember walking into the living room and the TV was on and I thought 'what kind of movie is that?' and I looked down and saw Fox News on the bottom and my heart just stopped. I just thought, wow: that's on American soil."
Grove said the memories are still fresh 18 years later. "So it's definitely an honor to come here to this beautiful community of Ridgecrest, the most patriotic city in the nation. Who would have thought just a few months ago that this community was shaking, rocking and rolling in a place of uncertainty and today thousands of flags walked the streets of Ridgecrest down to this beautiful park and are placed behind me. That's a community that comes together."
As another frequent visitor to Ridgecrest, Assemblyman Vince Fong seconded Grove's statement that the event marks Ridgecrest as the most patriotic community in the country.
Fong said he was in New York City the weekend before 9/11. "I saw the World Trade Center towers and in an instant, the next weekend they were gone. I never got to go and tour the World Trade Center."
Fong noted that it is not just on 9/11 that first responders run into burning buildings to save others, but that law enforcement personnel (along with two good samaritans) did this recently in Ridgecrest also.
Fong said it is important to instill in young people the idea that "when our country needs us, we need to rise to the occasion."
Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood and Ridgecrest Chief of Police and parade Grand Marshal Jed McLaughlin led a moment of appreciation for first responders including those from the Kern County Sheriff's Department, California Highway Patrol, Kern County Fire Department, China Lake Fire Department, China Lake Police Department, Liberty Ambulance and District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer.
"We thank you so much for all you do and your support," Youngblood said. "We thank each and every member of our armed forces that keeps our country safe. We lost another World War II veteran at 3 o'clock yesterday afternoon, my dad," he added on a personal note as the crowd made noises of sympathy.
"Thanks," Youngblood said, sounding choked up.
The Searles earthquakes were a recurring topic, frequently brought up by Bell.
"I'm not sure if [RPD Chief] Jed McLaughlin has ever been on national TV before but he made it this year," Bell said to some laughter from the crowd. He added that McLaughlin was a clear and obvious choice for this year's grand marshal.
"Jed doesn't want to say anything," Bell said to more laughter. "He got out of it this year, he says I've done enough talking on the microphone."
Bell also gave a shout-out to the families of the first responders.
Rear Adm. Scott Dillon, commander of Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, was the keynote speaker for the event. Dillon's address centered on the concepts of unity and selflessness and how they brought out by events such as 9/11.
"The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, were a tragic reminder of the fact that we live in a dangerous world. They had devastating consequences for the lives of the people who were directly touched by those events," Dillon said. "We can never forget that and we honor that memory when we get together on an occasion such as this."
He noted that at the same time the subsequent actions of first responders, public servants, our military personnel and other citizens across the country served as examples of unity and selflessness that continue to inspire to this day.
Dillon gave a specific example: the passengers and crew of Flight 93 whose unity and selflessness took the form of bringing that airplane down far from its intended target at the cost of their own lives.
He noted that unity and selflessness are also displayed in "smaller and less-known" ways, such as the country's many 9/11 memorials -- including this one.
"When we gather together on an occasion like today, or otherwise reflect on the events of 9/11, we honor the memory of the nearly 3,000 immediate victims of those attacks, we respect the sacrifice of over 3,000 children who lost at least one parent to the attacks," he said.
Like other speakers, Dillon emphasized the importance of honoring first responders and others who volunteered after the fact to help others, sometimes at the cost of their own personal safety.
"There were people on Sept. 11 who could have gotten clear but remained in place helping strangers to safety in some cases at the cost of their own lives," he said.
Dillon said in his opinion, "one of the most important ways we can honor these examples is to look for ways large and small to emulate their selflessness in our own lives."
Like others Dillon noted that the Ridgecrest area is known across the country for its patriotic values and appreciation of selfless sacrifice.
"That really is a defining characteristic of the community of Ridgecrest and it truly speaks to the character of the citizens who are gathered here today that that fact is known well outside this city," he said. "Thank you for continuing to carry on that tradition."
In a touching moment, the 4th of July Children's Choir completed the armed forces medley which was interrupted by the first of the Searles earthquakes during their program on July 4.
The bagpipers had to leave for another event, so the entire crowd pitched in for a closing rendition of "Amazing Grace." The event concluded with a benediction by Taulvee and Brian Cosner playing Taps.
The ceremonies continue tonight, Sept. 11, at Freedom Park as the Exchange Club holds its annual candlelight vigil ceremony. The vigil starts around 7:30 p.m. with brief comments from local leaders, music by the Farris Family Singers, and the performance of the “last call” firefighters ceremony by China Lake Fire Department.