Andy Jones, one of the organizers of the event held in conjunction with national Armed Forces Day, said he was expecting more than 25,000 people to watch an air stunt show, fireworks and performances from Joanna Smith, Jenna Jentry and Jo Dee Messina.
Jones, Donnie Thompson and Dale Phelon started the event in 2008.
“The three of us like guns, the USA, military and fireworks, so that’s how it started,” Thompson said.
Phelon died in March from complications with cancer.
“He wanted this to go on,” Jones said. “He was a huge patriot.”
In keeping with the military appreciation, all uniformed service members ate in the VIP tent.
“All you have to do is show up with a uniform,” Jones said. “We’ll take care of you.”
During the opening ceremony, 350 soldiers from Fort Gordon recited the U.S. Army Creed. Their booming voices could be heard throughout the park.
Fort Gordon’s commanding general, Maj. Gen. Alan Lynn, introduced a few of the wounded soldiers who work with the Augusta Warrior Project, one of the celebration’s partners, and told their stories.
“Today is a fantastic day,” Lynn said. “It is a great day to interface with the community. I know this touches people. I know they care.”
Traditionally, the event was held along the banks of the Savannah River in downtown Augusta. Last year’s celebration was canceled when construction on the TEE Center meant Reynolds Street was not usable.
Marty Clement, a Columbia County resident, was seated in a lawn chair featuring two small flags. He had brought his two young children, who were checking out the Black Hawk helicopter parked on the grass.
Clement had been to the Thunder before and was happy to learn it moved to his area. He said it was cleaner and safer in Evans, and he hopes it stays.
For Jones, Saturday’s turnout and blue sky were perfect ways to remember his friend Phelon, who he described as a man who loved the military.
“It is all about the soldiers today,” he said. “They are some of the best people around. Dale would have been proud.”