LOUISBURG, N.C. (WNCN) – One of the first large Memorial Day events since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic kicked off in Louisburg this weekend.
The inaugural Memorial Day First Fruit Farms Balloon Festival saw a few hiccups because of stormy and cold weather. Still, thousands of people were expected to walk through the gates by closing time.
The first thing people saw when entering was a memorial garden. A circle of flags enclosed a large flag pole surrounded by smaller flags set into the ground. On each flag was the name of a fallen U.S. service member in honor of Memorial Day.
“Most of our country thinks it’s a holiday for barbecues and going swimming,” said June Augusta.
Instead, Augusta said the day is about remembering people like her son.
“He was Sgt. Eric J. Hernandez. He was killed August 4, 2007, in Baiji, Iraq,” said Augusta.
Augusta is a Gold Star mom. She was invited to place a flag in the memorial garden at the festival.
“It’s a day to honor the ones that did not come home so we can do things like this and have the freedom to speak what we want,” she said.
Between 30,000 and 60,000 people were expected at the hot air balloon festival over the weekend.
While there was food and entertainment before hot air balloons took flight, the day was ultimately about those who gave their life.
The owner of the festival grounds lost his brother in action.
“We have to make sure those who are lost in service are never forgotten,” said Michael Dorman.
Dorman founded Military Missions in Action. The organization ships packages to service members and helps homeless and disabled veterans.
“To be able to give them a way to just remember their loved ones is just the most important thing we can do,” said Dorman.
His organization supplied the flags that are staked in the ground. He watched all day long as a bell was rung after each flag was placed. Several times a day, the names of those being honored were read.
Sunday’s cloudy weather was reflective of the grief some still face today.
“I’m here for my buddy that I lost two years so. He took his own life. It’s just one of those really hard times,” said Austin Lhotka, an active Marine.
As he walked up to the ring of flags, he didn’t expect to have an emotional response when writing down his friend’s name.
“It was a lot harder than you think it is,” he said while accompanied by his wife, an Army soldier, and her daughter. His wife helped him write the name down.
They had several other names written on the same flag.
Lhotka said it’s not just important to think about those we’ve lost, but those who are grieving with loss, too.
“When you come out here it’s great to see that there are others who are there for you no matter what,” Lhotka said.