Sisters Leila and Yasmin Bourbel of Lemoore, ages 2 and 3, smiled as they waved an American flag at military vehicles passing by Monday morning in the annual Fresno Veterans Day Parade.
"They wave the flags for their daddy," said grandmother Patty Cullen. "He's deployed."
The girls were among an estimated crowd of 20,000 lining downtown streets from City Hall to Chukchansi Park for the 94th parade to honor the sacrifices made by those in uniform -- past, present and future.
Leila's and Yasmin's father, 24-year-old Ilyass Bourbel, was scheduled to return from the Persian Gulf in September, but his Navy deployment was extended. Grandparents Patty and Artie Cullen flew in from New York in early October to help Bourbel's wife, Kelly, take care of the children. The grandparents told the girls they were all going to a big parade on Monday.
"We're going to the parade to honor -- like what your daddy is doing -- protecting our country," Patty Cullen told Yasmin.
The three-hour-long parade, which kicked off at 11:11 a.m. in front of City Hall, is the largest of its kind on the West Coast. It featured a variety of entries, including marching bands, military vehicles, classic cars and, of course, a giant U.S. flag. More than 30 people marched down the streets gripping a 20-foot by 30-foot American flag.
KSEE (Channel 24.1) broadcast the parade, and the Pentagon Channel, an international military news network, carried it nationwide and to 178 countries.
Many spectators stood out in a sea of red, white and blue holding signs and saluting veterans, yelling "Thank you for your service." The younger crowd, especially the boys, stared at the big military vehicles with complete bliss.
"I like it because they have the weapons and stuff," 6-year-old Jacob Crabtree said as he watched one of the vehicles drive by. "I like when the guys are in the tanks."
About 10,000 people in 200 entries participated in the parade, said Lisa Tripp, organizer of this year's parade. It paid tribute to the U.S. Merchant Marine, and special recognition was given to nearly 65 local World War II veterans and their families. Each of the veterans received a pin with the American flag and the World War II flag. Only about eight World War II veterans signed up for the parade last year.
"It brought me to tears," Tripp said. "I didn't know that there were that many here in the Central Valley that would be able to participate because we are losing so many by the day."
Spectators Charlie Macpherson and his wife, Jan, decided to attend the parade after watching it on TV for many years at their home in Clovis. The couple were among hundreds who recently welcomed local WWII veterans home after their Honor Flight trip to Washington, D.C.
"They were a part of a special generation that kicked off this country and didn't get that recognition," Macpherson said. "So many lives were lost during that war, and Vietnam shouldn't be overlooked, either."
Thomas Sabatino, 65, proudly marched in the parade as a member of the local Vietnam veterans association, wearing his Navy uniform while carrying the G.I. Alice bag he's owned since 1970. He had a picture of his younger brother Daniel hung around his neck. Sabatino said Daniel was a Vietnam veteran who was exposed to the defoliant Agent Orange and died recently from a cancer blamed on the chemical.
Sabatino said it's important for people to show support for the veterans and for America.
"If we let people forget that a price had to be paid for our freedom, we're all in big trouble," Sabatino said. "Freedom is not free."
Check with fresnobee.com for updates throughout the day.