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A tradition continues; the 63rd annual Armed Forces Day Parade starts at 10 a.m. on Saturday | Kitsap Week
Patriotism will be in full force on Saturday at the 63rd annual Armed Forces Day Parade in Bremerton.
Veterans and active duty military members from all branches will be represented in the mile-long parade. Marching bands from Washington, Oregon and Idaho will provide the sound track for the day. Flag teams, drill teams and floats will round out the 150 parade entries.
Cris Larsen has organized the parade for the past nine years. When he took the reigns, only a handful of marching bands participated. But under his leadership, the number has risen to 19. He believes that parades are all about marching bands and he doesn’t turn any away.
“The love you feel in the city as the marching bands walk through is awesome,” Larsen said.
The theme for this year’s parade is “Courage Brings Freedom.” The parade not only honors active duty military and veterans, but also the families of service members.
“So many of our men and women stationed out of [Washington] are in the front lines,” Larsen said. “People left at home are scared. We can give them a hug by putting on the most ultimate parade in the world.”
In Larsen’s eyes, the event is all about family. He encourages family members of dignitaries to ride along with the honorees on the floats and in cars. Last year, Rear Adm. Joseph P. Aucoin, commander of Carrier Strike Group 3, rode in the command car with his family. After the parade he told Larsen that he had never felt the same gratitude and support as he did during the parade.
“Stories like that keep me doing this,” Larsen said.
Along with the parade, Larsen organizes the Heroes Barbeque for military families. Larsen is a firm believer that if you truly want to thank someone, you do so by breaking bread together.
The barbeque gives active and retired military personnel a chance to kick back and relax after the parade. Military attendees and their families are given a meal, free of charge, as a thank you for their service.
“I don’t want to have faceless people who show up for the parade and then go home,” Larsen said. Instead, he wants people to feel celebrated.
Larsen remembers one year hearing a little boy say to his father, “Daddy, don’t you have to pay for our meal?” Upon learning that the meal was a gift because of his father’s service, the boy beamed with pride.
The recession has made planning for the parade a bit more difficult. Larsen said fund raising used to be easy. But due to the current economy, raising funds has become challenging.
Even basic necessities such as Porta-Potties add up in cost, he said.
“I don’t like walking through the door and hearing people say ‘He’s going to ask for money,” Larsen said.
In the habit of working the room, Larsen added with a laugh, “I do beg. And I hope all of your readers send in $8.95 to support a family and send it to the Bremerton Chamber.”
Larsen is a funny guy by nature and is a stand-up comic. Later this year, Larsen will take his act to the Middle East and will perform for the stationed troops. And while Larsen hasn’t served in the military, his family has long ties to the service.
Bremerton holds the distinction of having the largest and longest running Armed Forces parade in the nation. Bremerton’s parade began two years before the official national Armed Forces Day in 1950.
And Larsen isn’t going to let the long-standing tradition go to the wayside. “I don’t want to be the festival who says they are going bankrupt.”
In the past, Larsen estimates that sunny parade days have drawn an attendance of 50,000. If it’s rainy, the parade averages about half that number.
Larsen doesn’t pull the event off alone. He has a committee that helps, as well as students from local high schools and the Washington Youth Academy. Not only does he appreciate the help the teenagers provide, he looks to them as the torch bearers. His goal is to pass on his knowledge of how to run the event to those who may lead it tomorrow.
Long-time residents and families stake out their same spot on the parade route each year. People line up early, some the night before. Grandparents and parents who once marched in the parade now watch the next generation take to the streets.
Larsen’s goal for the parade boils down to love and respect. If military personnel can feel the love in the community, then he feels his job is done.
“The parade will touch you to tears and make you feel proud,” he said.
Celebrate Armed Forces Day:
Boat Show: May 20 at noon, May 21 and 22 at 10 a.m. at Harborside Marina.
Pancake Breakfast: May 21 at 7 a.m. at either Bremerton Central Lions Club on Fourth Street, or at the Masonic Lodge on Fifth Street.
5K run/ 2-mile walk: May 21, registration starts at 6:30 a.m. and race begins at 8 a.m. Starting line at Fourth Street and Warren Avenue.
Parade: May 21, 10 a.m. in downtown Bremerton.
Heroes Barbeque: May 21 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Pacific Avenue between Fourth Street and Burwell Street.
Hydroplane Races: May 21-22 at Kitsap Lake on Price Road.