Justin Heckel smiled as he talked about the appreciation he had been shown Saturday during the inaugural Thunder Over Augusta.
"I've had a couple of people shake my hand and tell me, 'Thank you,' " said the National Guard private second class. "That makes you feel good. It means that the community appreciates what we are doing here at home and overseas."
Another private second class, Andrew Francis, shared the sentiment.
"It does mean a lot to you. It helps to keep our morale high," he said.
The event, organized to salute area armed forces, was held at the Augusta Common, the Botanical Gardens and the Old Depot in downtown Augusta.
It featured military exhibits, a helicopter display, local JROTC units, dog attack demonstrations, several interactive activities and performances by Lee Greenwood, the Signal Corps Band and local groups. A fireworks display ended the event.
Janette Ouzts's family, of Edgefield, S.C., was among the thousands who attended.
"Events like this give us an opportunity to show our support for our troops and for our country," she said. "Though I don't have any family in the military, I support and love (the troops) just as if they were my family."
Norma Fabian, of Augusta, also attended with her family.
"It's good to see the community come together and have fun and show that we stand behind our military 100 percent," she said. "They put their lives on the lines every day for American citizens, and they don't always get the respect they deserve. By attending this, we are showing how much we care."
National Guard Pvt. Nichole Hall said she was most touched by the reactions she received from children.
"They're excited to see the exhibits and learn about what we do," she said. "Even when we're walking by, you can hear them say, 'Look, there's a soldier,' and it reminds you of why we do what we do. It reminds us that we are protecting that kid's future and freedom so they can grow up and be what they want to be in life. For me, there's no greater feeling in the world than that."
Reach Nikasha Dicks at (706) 823-3336 or firstname.lastname@example.org.