GAUTIER, MS (WLOX) - It began as a small tribute to veterans 17 years ago at Gautier High School. It has now grown into one of the biggest events held on the coast during the week of Veterans Day.
More than 400 coast veterans were treated to breakfast and a rousing tribute to their service inside the school's gymnasium Monday morning.
"I was just so impressed by how welcome we were and the joy and the exhilaration of people around us," said Navy veteran Michael Maixner, who was attending the event for the first time. "It was just a marvelous experience. The atmosphere is just so conducive about just feeling good."
The vets, who ranged in age from the 90s to the 20s, were treated to performances by the schools' band, the choir, and the Junior ROTC. Children from several elementary schools in Jackson County also contributed by making place mats that were used during the breakfast.
"It makes me feel good. To have the community to see the veterans and to talk to them and get to know them a little bit," said Navy veteran Elisha McDonald
Many of the veterans said this event gives them a new appreciation for the youth that will be the next generation of leaders in our country. Tears could be seen in the eyes of many of those being honored.
"We just got a different breed down here," Navy veteran Bill Whatley said. "They are all pro-America, they're pro-veterans, and it's just wonderful for them to greet us when they walk in the door. I've already had 50 students shake my hand."
For the students, they said it was an honor and a privilege to thank the men and women for their service and dedication.
"It makes me look at the country differently. To see that they do what they do and they've been affected by it and they keep on going," Rauje' Little said.
"It makes me feel good," Cameron Crager said. "It makes me feel good for telling them thank-you for going over there and fighting for my freedom."
In a rather poignant twist to this year's veteran's breakfast and tribute, a former Gautier High School student, William Batson, is now a member of the military. So what did he think about the transformation?
"It's an awesome feeling," Batson gushed. "Just to come back and say, 'Hey, I'm one of them now.' And just feel that love from the students and everything when I come back."
The keynote speaker was Dr. Rodney Bennett, President of the University of Southern Mississippi.