GAUTIER -- With the sounds of pounding drums and hundreds of students and faculty chanting "USA," more than 300 veterans received a heroes welcome Monday morning at the Gautier High School Veterans Breakfast.
"This is the 16th annual breakfast and assembly for the veterans," Principal Al Sparkman said. "My understanding is that there were between 20 and 25 veterans at the first assembly 16 years ago. You can see it has grown quite significantly."
Sparkman said the event has become so popular that it is a signature event for veterans on the Coast.
"We not only have veterans from the Coast represented, we have some from across the nation," he said. "We have some people who have come here over the weekend and they look forward to it every year. It's great."
The event started in the high school's cafeteria where veterans were served a complimentary breakfast. The program then moved into the gymnasium where the student body enthusiastically awaited the veterans.
Chad Daniels, Director of the Armed Forces Museum at Camp Shelby, was Monday's keynote speaker.
He encouraged the veterans to share stories of their time of service.
"Everyday I go to work, someone like you comes in and they have a story," Daniels said. "We want to help you tell your stories. My grandfather told me stories that are only in my head. Don't let this happen to you."
Gone but not forgotten
The Armed Forces Museum showed a video presentation of Mississippi veterans who have died in the war on terrorism, most of whom were killed in Iraq in 2005.
As the school choir sang an acapella rendition of "Prayer of the Children" and "Nearer to Thee God," veterans and their spouses wiped away tears.
The program also paid tribute to POW/MIA veterans and "Taps" was performed as Bill Massey, career center technician at Gautier High, read a list of local veterans who have died since the 2014 breakfast.
The first veterans breakfast was the brainchild of Elizabeth Bounds, then a U.S. history teacher at Oak Grove who would invite veterans to talk to her students.
"I started a breakfast at Oak Grove High School," Bounds said. "When I came here, I thought we needed to start a veterans breakfast. It's a neat example of paying it forward."
Bounds said the event started before Sept. 11, 2001.
"It shows patriotism is still alive. I know this school and I know this community," Bounds said. "I'm very proud of the students and staff that step up to make it happen each year."
Bounds recently moved to Nebraska with her husband, former Mississippi Institute of Higher Learning Commissioner Hank Bounds, where he is the chancellor for the University of Nebraska. But it didn't stop here from helping with the breakfast.
"This is the first year I wasn't here to help set up the campus," she said. "But I know a lot of the business people so I've been able to do some fundraising from afar."
Chester Blaylock, a WWII veteran who worked in the school district for many years, said he has attended the breakfast 15 times.
"They do a great job," Blaylock said.
Charles Golemon, a retired Army veteran from Moss Point, said he looks forward to the breakfast every year.
"I look forward to coming here," Goleman said. "It reminds me that the people still care about us and they haven't forgotten about us."
With more than 300 veterans on the campus plus spouses, media and local officials, Sparkman said the breakfast has taken on a life of its own.
"We do year-round planning for the breakfast and assembly," he said.
Although the staff and faculty help facilitate the event, the heavy lifting is done by students.
"We are blessed to have a lot of great activity groups and great sponsors on campus," Sparkman said. "They have been doing a great job with this. We split the campus up and divided the responsibilities. Each group or club has their own task to complete."
Gautier senior Jacob Pugh said it is an honor for the school to host the program.
"I think it's one of the prestigious things we do because every single one of these veterans was willing to sacrifice their lives for us," Pugh said. "This is our way of thanking them."
The annual breakfast is funded through private and corporate contributions and student fundraising.