Waterford — Gladys Rivera made sure to take her grandson, Lorenzo, aside to explain beforehand the Memorial Day ceremony the Rivera family would attend early Friday.
She told him that people would gather to honor veterans and the memory of his father, Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Edwin Rivera, who died after being wounded in Afghanistan.
The early morning ceremony just outside Waterford High School was even more poignant because it arrived on the 2-year anniversary of Edwin Rivera's death.
Hundreds of high school students joined town and elected officials and others for the ceremony. Lorenzo, 6, in a brief moment with his grandmother, offered some heartfelt words to underscore the importance of the day.
"He said, 'My daddy is in my heart — that's where he lives,'" Gladys Rivera said as she stood with her husband, Ceferino. "It was very special knowing he's in everybody's heart. We miss him. It means a lot to us that this falls on this day."
The ceremony was designed to honor all veterans, but it highlighted the sacrifices of Rivera, Army Staff Sgt. Ari Cullers, Army Capt. Arnold E. Holm Jr. and Marine Cpl. Kemaphoom "Ahn" Chanawongse. All were from the town and were killed in action.
Former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, a Vietnam veteran, spoke and shared the story of how in 2003 he was contacted by Waterford High School students who were interested in learning why Holm never returned from service. Simmons said the call led to many sharing Holm's story of how his small scout helicopter was shot down in South Vietnam in June 1972.
Holm's remains were eventually discovered — nearly 40 years after his death — and he was buried in November in Arlington National Cemetery. Waterford High School Principal Don Macrino said students created a documentary on Holm as part of a service learning project.
Cullers' mother, Robin Cornele, and his brother, Jacob, also attended the ceremony. Cornele spent Thursday in Hartford to see a portrait of her son added to the Wall of Honor, which rests between the state Capitol and the Legislative Office Building.
She called Friday a bittersweet day. Cullers, 28, was killed Oct. 30 in Afghanistan when enemy forces attacked his unit with a rocket-propelled grenade.
"I know he would have been here if he was home," Cornele said. "This is our first Memorial Day (without him). A lot of firsts have come up."
The U.S. Coast Guard Honor Guard was on hand for the presentation of the colors. The ceremony also included a gun salute from the Connecticut National Guard Firing Squad. Choir students, led by director Tim Fioravanti, sang the national anthem.
Two students, Michael Spanos and Katie Turner, read poems, including "In Flanders Fields," a prominent war poem written during World War I. State Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, shared some history of Memorial Day. Bugle players Ben Frascarelli and Casey Briggs also performed a tribute.
A group of ROTC students, led by senior Kevin Shepherd, raised a flag to the top of the school's flagpole. Shepherd has enlisted in the Army and said he expects to depart in July for Fort Benning, Ga., for boot camp.
"It was really real. That could be me," Shepherd said of honoring the town's deceased war heroes. "It hits home. It's great to see the support from the school and the community."
Many students also wore red poppies pinned to their shirts representing the blood shed by soldiers during war.
Macrino said the school will continue to make an effort to acknowledge veterans and to focus on their contributions and service. "We've been hit particularly hard in this community," he said. "Maybe it's more poignant here. We want the kids to remember, and I hope this sets a tradition for them to carry with them."