HAMMOND — For many years, Sam Dileo harbored a special dream for his hometown of Hammond.
Noting, as the years went by, that Hammond did not host a celebration of Independence Day, except for a fireworks show usually held a few days before July 4, Dileo dreamed of establishing just such an event that would honor the nation’s history and the veterans of military service who, Dileo said, helped make the United States the nation it is today.
Last year, Dileo solicited the assistance of others in Hammond, and together, they launched the first Celebrate America event on July 4. The inaugural celebration was a successful endeavor with a considerable amount of community involvement. Dileo recounts that $10,000 was raised at last year’s observance of Independence Day and that money was given to the national Wounded Warriors program.
“The success of our first Celebrate America was the result of many citizens and local organizations along with the city of Hammond all coming together to make this happen. These good people made this a gift to the community,” Dileo said.
Buoyed by the successful beginnings of a community observance of Independence Day in 2014, Dileo and his team eagerly awaited the opportunity to bring the second annual Celebrate America to Hammond on July 4.
Despite sporadic rain showers, the day was, in Dileo’s estimation, a success.
Crowds for this year’s celebration were larger than the previous year, and participation in many different venues at the event was up over the previous year.
“It’s all about a love for your country, for your flag and for the wonderful men and women who have served in our military to preserve this great nation,” Dileo said in an interview before the day’s events began. “We must never forget just how valuable our freedom is and the values that made our country great. That’s why we are here today … to remember the guiding principles on which our nation was founded and to recognize our veterans.”
Celebrate America began with a procession from the heart of historic downtown Hammond to a stage set up near the city’s historic Cate Square. The major feature of the parade was several dozen veterans, a few in wheelchairs and some riding golf carts, behind a color guard and a band playing patriotic music. After introductions by Dileo, the group joined in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The national anthem was sung by local vocalist Rose Anders, who also led the crowd in singing “God Bless America.”
Local radio personality Johnny Chauvin then offered a history of the writing of the national anthem. In his remarks, Chauvin noted that the song’s author, Francis Scott Key, observed at the height of the battle of Fort McHenry, being defended against the British army by United States troops, the U.S. flag. Despite a furious bombardment, the flag still stood at a strange angle.
“That flag was being held up in that way because the bodies of dead American soldiers was serving as the base of the flag,” Chauvin said, adding that “patriots died to keep that flag waving, and they have continued to do so ever since.”
Following the opening ceremonies, festivalgoers spent the remainder of the day participating in various activities designed to entertain and bring the community together.
A number of food booths offered various treats to the visitors. A jambalaya cook-off attracted about 15 contestants. The apple pie contest also attracted considerable interest. Representatives of the various branches of the military services had information tents for celebration visitors.
The Louisiana Children’s Discovery Center set up a play area for youngsters on the celebration grounds. The Hammond Garden Club sponsored an old-fashioned cake walk and face painting booth.
Of special interest to many were the Steel Soldiers and their huge trucks and other vehicles that had seen service in battles overseas. The Steel Soldiers acquire, restore and maintain the vehicles as a hobby and as a means of relating the relevance of the military to area residents. Warren Ostarly Jr., of Covington, entertained many guests by demonstrating his 1990 model BMY 923A2 troop and cargo carrier. Ostarly said he drives the huge truck on the interstate to attend various special events, such as Celebrate America, and “looks down on the heads of 18-wheeler drivers.”
Ostarly said it is a privilege to demonstrate military hardware at events that support veterans. His father, Warren Ostarly Sr., 91, was captured on D-Day and spent eight months in a German prisoner of war camp.
“My daddy still rides with me when we take the truck out,” Ostarly said.
Vintage cars also were on display.
Dileo said that proceeds raised at Celebrate America this year will be donated to local veterans organizations.
“Our veterans need all the support they can get, and that is what this is all about. We, as citizens, need to be constantly reminded that freedom is not free. … It has been purchased by our veterans through the many sacrifices they have made, some with their own lives, to sustain our nation. It is not about being a Democrat or Republican, a liberal or a conservative. It’s all about being an American. That is the one thing we have in common — that we are all Americans. Being an American citizen is one of the things for which I am most proud. It’s an honor and privilege,” Dileo said.