When Cody Russell of Blount County left for a tour of duty with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan 18 months ago, his mom, Carol Russell, couldn’t shake the feeling that she should be following his example.
She wanted “to serve my country while he served his,” Russell said. And she wanted to honor him, and the sacrifice of those who went before him.
The project the soldier’s mom gave birth to comes of age on Sunday, June 14, when Flag Day in Blount County will be celebrated as it has never been celebrated before.
“When he left for Afghanistan before Christmas 2007, that’s when I started putting this together,” said Carol Russell, who has organized the “Proud to be an American Parade and Festival.”
“I wanted to serve my country while he served his. He loves veterans so much. I thought, ‘I’ll do something for veterans.’ That was Cody’s reason for going into the service - paying back the soldiers who have come before him.”
Organizing the event, with a lot of help from her friends, said Carol, has been “the biggest blessing,” she said.
Russell said the idea for the Proud to be an American Parade & Festival has evolved since she first thought about it. “I had a vision of masses coming together to just thank veterans,” she said.
Russell, 52, Walland, said ideas for the event continued to develop in her mind the more she thought about it. Russell said she had the idea that it would look good if children also wore red, white and blue outfits during the event. Over the period she was planning the parade, Russell also was buying up little red, white and blue shirts and other clothing to give youngsters to wear at the parade and festival.
“I’ve got 500 red white outfits for children up to age 10,” she said. “I’ve bought them from everywhere and already given away 150,” she said.
About nine months ago, Russell spoke with Blount County Mayor Jerry Cunningham and he encouraged her to keep working to organize the event.
“He was all over it. He said, ‘Let’s let this be about other veterans.’ Every veteran has said, ‘Let’s make it be about the others,’” she said.
Russell said as she worked to get more support for the event, she didn’t want it to become about partisan politics.
“It’s about Americans thanking our veterans, the people who have served us, the veterans are the ones who have served us, who have stepped up to the plate,” she said. “They have done what they had to do. It’s about them.”
As the ideas for the project grew, a family friend named Bethany Brown, 28, came on board and began helping. “She has been the biggest blessing. She’s my event coordinator/director,” Russell said. “This wouldn’t have happened without her.”
Russell said Angele Moon signed on as fundraising director. Meetings with the City of Maryville began in earnest.
Russell said she almost lost her motivation during the winter. The economy soured and it was hard to stay up-beat, she said.
“I wanted to honor veterans but it was hard to celebrate and ask people to help sponsor a new event when people were being laid off and Denso was down to a four-day work week,” she said.
The day Alcoa, Inc., announced a large-scale layoff, Russell said she knew it was time to pray. “When things got so bad, I kept talking to the Lord,” she said. “I realized we need this now more than we ever needed it. It will be a coming together. We yet don’t know how bad things might get, but we need a revival of patriotism and a love for God and country in each other.”
Russell said she felt reinvigorated. She and her team began working harder to get support from area businesses. She still received “no’s” from some businesses, but the majority of those she asked did what they could.
“The general response is overwhelming positive. I have found out we really do love each other more than we act like when some gets our parking spot,” she said. “We really do care about each other, My faith has been restored.”
In early spring she was invited by Tennessee Helping Hearts, a website support group for veterans and their families, to be on the float with Gold Star moms, mothers of military personnel killed in service to their country. The parade on the parkway in Pigeon Forge motivated her even more to make sure people knew about the parade and festival she was planning for veterans.
“I was on a float with Gold Star mothers, and I didn’t feel worthy. You look at veterans in lawn chairs up and down Pigeon Forge. You could see how they would start to get up out of their lawn chairs as these Gold Star mothers would ride by and the veterans would take their hats off,” she said. “Things like that are what buoyed me on and encouraged me and renewed me. It made me want to do so much more for those men I saw that night. I kept being renewed throughout the whole thing.”
Russell said she’s been blessed by the experience of helping organize the event because she has gotten to know so many veterans. “I have met real heroes, people who not just have talent but who stepped up to the plate, and they’ve sacrificed. Veterans are a different breed,” she said.
Russell said one veteran told her too many programs were about the politicians but he told Russell he believed in what she was doing. “I told him, ‘I’m going to make a bet with you that you can’t keep up with the thank-you’s you’ll receive on June 14,” she said.
Russell said she wanted the festival and parade to be about appreciating veterans and acknowledging their sacrifice. She recalled how the public was unified on the day after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “We loved each other a little more, everybody put a flag up, and you couldn’t buy a flag. There was a terrible tragedy that preceded that. I want to have that feeling of how we loved each other, but without the tragedy.
Russell said on June 8, she and her team were finalizing details for the June 14 event.
Russell said organizers have 750 bright red shirts that say “Proud to be an American Parade and Festival,” that will be given to each veteran. “We’re going to give them a shirt and ask them to put it on, give them a number ticket, take the other half and we’re giving away prizes,” she said.
The pieces are in place, Russell said, for Maryville’s first “Proud to be an American Parade and Festival” on Flag Day. The order of events are:
“From 12:30 to 2 p.m. is registration of veterans in the parking lot of CBBC downtown.
“The children who will be picking up a free patriotic outfit can meet and change at the Chamber of Commerce at 1 p.m. The building will be open for event, but children who already have an outfit can be there as late as 1:30 p.m. for the parade, Russell said.
“The parade starts at 2 p.m. at CBBC. It goes up Church Avenue and turns left on Cusick Street and ends at the amphitheater in the Bicentennial Greenbelt Park, where the assembly will be.
Russell said the program at the amphitheater starts at 4 p.m., and should be done by 6 p.m. “We’re providing water. People can bring lawn chairs, snack, picnics and just blanket the lawn area,” she said. “We will have some chairs for veterans.”
Russell said there will be more than 80 participants in the parade. “We’ll have horses, floats, cloggers, military vehicles, children, bagpipes and a drum band,” she said.
Russell said Jessica Schall Thomas of Phoenix, Ariz., will open the program with the National Anthem. Jessica Schall Thomas lost her brother Kenneth Schall in Iraq in 2005 in a Humvee accident. Her family, including her brother and parents, plan to attend.
Gunner from WIVK will be there as will Bill Landry with the Heartland series, U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan, state Sen. Doug Overbey, county and city mayors and other officials from Maryville, Alcoa and Blount County.
Vietnam Veteran Tommy Clack of Georgia will speak. Tedd Graves will sing “Colors,” and Schall will do a tribute song entitled, ‘Soldier, I Thank You.”
Russell said she hopes the Proud to be an American Parade and Festival becomes an annual event. “I’m hoping it catches on, I really do,” she said. “I think it will be a great community experience.”
Russell and the event organizers are asking the public’s help with moving some veterans along the parade route the day of the event. “If anyone has a golf cart, we would love to use them to move veterans from one place another,” she said.
For donations or to offer a door prize for one of the veterans the day of the event, contact Angelia Moon, 1323 Mimosa Drive, Louisville, TN, 37777 or call 865-233-4364. Russell also can be reached at 865-850-1459 for information.