Freedom Balloon Fest honors those who gave their all

Balloons light up the night sky during the festival’s hot air balloon glow Saturday evening.
Balloons light up the night sky during the festival’s hot air balloon glow Saturday evening.

It’s no accident that the WRAL Freedom Balloon Fest is held over the Memorial Day weekend.

“Other organizations have black tie affairs,” said Brian Hoyle, the organizer and founder of the four-day event being held Fleming Loop Park through Monday. “This is our yellow ribbon affair that we have in honor of those who gave their all.”

Sure, the star attraction at the festival is the hot air balloons – if, that is, the weather permits, which wasn’t the case early Sunday morning. Then there’s the supporting cast of live entertainment plus a smorgasbord of food that included jalapeno pimento cheese and bacon hush puppies with Sriracha bang bang sauce. But there’s also a Field of Flags.

Those who donated $3 to the N.C. Amvets Service Foundation received a flag that they could plant in the ground in memory of a veteran, especially – but not exclusively – those who died defending their country. Hundreds of flags had been planted as of Sunday morning.

“Your first purpose on Memorial Day is to honor the dead,” said Jean Reaves of Roanoke Rapids, the president of N.C. Amvets. “But we want to honor all our veterans as well.”

Reaves told of a man who visited the Field of Flags three or four times Saturday morning, including one final time when he arrived with a huge honey bun.

“I don’t want you to think I’m being disrespectful bringing food,” he told Reaves, “but I’m going to break bread one last time with my buddies.”

Rodney Crisp, 35, an Army sergeant first class who lives in Buies Creek, had no idea that the Field of Flags was part of the festival. But he was pulled in when he saw the sign that proclaimed it was “dedicated to the memory of those who placed mission and service above self.”

“I just came over to put a flag in for friends who didn’t make it back home,” said Crisp, who was deployed twice to Iraq, as he sat on a park bench reflecting on the red-white-and-blue display Sunday morning.

Crisp personally knew five soldiers who were killed in Iraq. “It could be worse,” he said.

Two military veterans who volunteered to help out at the fair – George Guenther, 47, and Tammy Jackson, 49, both of Fuquay-Varina – took time out to pay their respects.

Jackson was pleased that the Field of Flags also “honors those who make it home but had disabilities and illnesses ...”

“... that took them later on,” Guenther chimed in.

“My husband’s uncle died from complications of Agent Orange,” which he was exposed to during the Vietnam War, Jackson said. “It’s important to honor them too. Just because they came back on a plane doesn’t mean they came back whole.”

Adding to the solemnity of the occasion were two uniformed Civil Air Patrol cadets who stood vigil at the site, one of whom stood at attention before a floral wreath as the other patrolled the perimeter. Altogether, about 40 North Carolina cadets ages 12 and up volunteered to stand vigil around-the-clock this weekend, sleeping on-site in tents and chaperoned by adult Air Patrol members.

“I volunteered because I knew it was going to be a long event,” said David Woods, 15, a freshman at Apex High School who only joined the Air Patrol earlier this month. “I wanted to come in and help out where I knew help would be needed.”

One of his shifts ran from 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. It was so quiet, he said, that there weren’t even any crickets chirping.

When the festival concludes Monday, the flags that have been planted will get a second life. Hoyle said a convoy will distribute the flags at area cemeteries “to decorate the grave sites of our war dead.”

David Ranii: 919-829-4877, @dranii