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Updated Jul 4, 2012 - 10:01 am

Arizona band marches in national parade, but makes time for serious visits

WASHINGTON - It was a sweltering-hot day in the nation's capital, but the only thing the members of the Gilbert High School marching band could talk about was how cool it was.

Cool to place a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Cool to see the eternal flame over President John F. Kennedy's grave.

Cool to be in Washington - the first time for many - to march in the National Independence Day Parade.

The Gilbert Tiger Pride Marching Band was one of two Arizona high school bands scheduled to march down Constitution Avenue on July Fourth, with more than 50 other bands from around the country. The trip culminates more than a year of planning and fundraising that gave 91 of the Gilbert band members a chance to come to the capital, said band director Lance Libby.

"It's something that they'll take with them the rest of their lives," Libby said.

But in addition to typical sightseeing activities, including visits to the White House and Mount Vernon, the Gilbert students also had more serious memorials planned for the holiday.

Besides placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, the students scheduled a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial where they planned to take "pencil rubbings" of names etched on the wall, for people back in Gilbert.

Michael O'Connor was doing a pencil rubbing for a teacher whose friend, Raymond Clark from Los Angeles, was killed in Vietnam. O'Connor, dressed in ROTC "full dress blues," was one of the four students chosen to place at wreath in Arlington.

O'Connor, a cadet first lieutenant in the ROTC who hopes to go into the Air Force after graduating next year, said he was proud to represent the ROTC part of his high school and to honor the nation's fallen soldiers.

Melissa Pierce who graduated this year, said the wreath-laying ceremony "was really moving and really cool. It's a neat experience to have."

The four who placed the wreath had won an essay contest open to all band members. At precisely 11:15 a.m. Tuesday, a soldier escorted the four down a short flight of steps. They then carried the wreath to the tomb before saluting, turning and walking back up the steps as their classmates and other tourists snapped pictures.

"It was really hot, but it was also really cool to do that," said Melissa Pierce, one of the four who placed the wreath.

Moriah Corbin, a junior and a member of the band's color guard who helped place the wreath, called it "nerve-wracking, but it was really honorable. And it was fun."

Justine Cote who plays the bass drum and helped place the wreath said what an honor it was to come to Arlington National Cemetery.

"It was a huge privilege to honor those who not only gave their lives but their identities for this country," Cote said.

Tiana Gaudioso, a sophomore who plays trumpet in the band, said it was her first time to the capital. Gaudioso said she loved seeing JFK's burial site and the eternal flame over his grave.

And seeing her friends in the band placing a wreath at the tomb was also "really cool," Gaudioso said.

Brent Garrett, president of the band's fundraising arm, said Gov. Jan Brewer asked the Gilbert band and the Raymond S. Kellis High School marching band from Peoria to represent the state at the July Fourth parade in Washington.

Gilbert band members who made the trip had to raise $1,600 per person to cover the cost.

"We've been working for well over a year now preparing and planning," Garrett said.

It all comes together Wednesday when the band marches down Constitution Avenue, one of the main streets flanking the National Mall between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial.

"It's just an honor to share our music with the great folks of the District of Columbia," Libby said.

Cote said she was looking forward to seeing the White House, but not so much the thought of carrying her huge drum in the parade Wednesday when high humidity and temperatures in the upper 90s are expected.

"It's going to be hot and it's going to be hard, but we'll all have to push through it," she said.

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