CLEARWATER — Military pageantry, exhibits and a renowned precision drill team will highlight today's fourth annual Clearwater Veterans Appreciation Day, a popular event that marches into a bigger venue this year — Bright House Field.
It's all free. The presentations and programs are a way to show appreciation to veterans, as well as teach children and others about military service, said Shelly Bauer, a former Marine and spokesman for the Clearwater Veterans Alliance.
The nonprofit organization presents the family event each year on behalf of the city of Clearwater. As many as 8,000 are expected today.
"It's a chance to heal and to honor all those who have been and are currently in uniform," Bauer said.
One highlight will be the appearance of the U.S. Marine Corps Silent Drill Platoon, a 24-person rifle team that performs calculated drill movements, including spins and tosses of their bayoneted rifles, without verbal commands.
The Marines are handpicked for the ceremonial touring group. One platoon member is Jake Gauthier, 19, a graduate of Gibbs High School .
His parents, Darlene and David Gauthier of St. Petersburg, and his twin brother, Max, also a Marine, will be reunited at today's event for the first time since Christmas.
"I've haven't seen him perform yet, so this will be thrilling," said Mrs. Gauthier, 48. "I'm walking on Cloud Nine.
"It's a real emotional roller coaster to have two sons in the Marine Corps," she said. "Life could change at any minute. They are just two young kids trying to make a difference in the world."
Since the 9/11 terror attacks, the twins have wanted to serve, she said. After graduation, they both married their high school sweethearts and enlisted.
The twins, now both lance corporals, had hoped to stay together as Marines. But Jake was chosen for the silent drill platoon based in Washington, D.C. Max was assigned to a nuclear security post in Georgia.
"They miss each other terribly," she said.
Today's program will be special for the Gauthiers for another reason. It's Darlene and David's 22nd wedding anniversary.
"This will be the best anniversary gift ever," said Darlene.
Also planning to attend today's event are 75 "Wounded Warriors" from Bay Pines and James A. Haley veterans' hospitals and their caregivers.
Doors open at noon so spectators can explore exhibits, military equipment and displays.
The program begins at 2 p.m. with special speakers, honor guards, flyovers and re-enactors. Also scheduled to drop in is the U.S. Special Operations Command Parachute Team.
Two new exhibits will be at the Carpenter Complex, adjacent to Bright House Field: The Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall, a smaller version of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington , D.C. , and the Moving Tribute, panels listing those lost after Vietnam through present-day conflicts.
The memorial walls are available for viewing 24 hours a day until Monday. "We predict at least 30,000 people will come to see them," Bauer said.