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Petaluma with its small-town atmosphere held a big-time Veterans Day Parade on Sunday, drawing a crowd of about 30,000 to watch men and women in uniform marching in formation, vintage military vehicles, classic cars and more.

It was punctuated by a crowd-pleasing fly-over of World War II warplanes, which had the crowd craning their necks and shielding their eyes from the sun.

"It is a wonderful opportunity to bring the kids out and celebrate the service of the men and women in the service," said Pat Williams, a Petaluma newcomer who said the parade lived up to its billing. "We were told not to miss it."

The parade has grown steadily since its founding in 1986, with 176 entries and 2,000 participants this year, said Steve Kemmerle, a member of American Legion Post 28 and the parade's coordinator.

"It is a way of thanking the people," said Kemmerle, a Vietnam veteran. "You have past veterans, you have current veterans and, hopefully, you have future veterans."

Kemmerle said the parade cost about $35,000 to put on, with the money raised through donations, and he said it's the largest Veterans Day parade north of San Francisco. He estimated the crowd at 32,000.

"It seems to get bigger every year," said Joe Noriel, president of the Petaluma Museum. "That is the one thing special about Petaluma: It takes the time to honor its veterans."

The sidewalks were packed with a patriotic crowd, many with small American flags, that clapped loud and continuously.

"It is good to remember what our country has done for us," said Kathy Cardoza of Petaluma. "It makes you very proud."

Erica Hokett of Petaluma held a hand-made "Thank You" sign near the start of the parade near Walnut Park.

"It is just because I am thankful for everything they have done," Hokett said. "It is a lot of sacrifice."

There was also a large number of appreciative veterans.

"It means a lot to me. I was born and raised here," said Steve Govan of Elk Grove, who served in the Army during Vietnam. "I came back here to see this parade, it is one of the best around."

"It is good thing to be recognized, especially Vietnam veterans, they had a hard time when they came home," said Pat McGee of Petaluma, who served in the Navy from 1957 to 1967.

The Petaluma Museum steps had seating for some veterans who were being honored for exemplary service, such as retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Titus, 85, of Colorado Springs, Colo., a pilot who flew 550 missions in Korea and Vietnam after joining in World War II.

"It's a moving experience, there's such a realm of support," Titus said. "It is just wonderful to see this outpouring of patriotism."

And from the crowd, there were waves and shouts of recognition to relatives, friends and neighbors who were in the parade.

"That is Roxanne, our neighbor," said Angela Faustino of Petaluma, who got the attention of a Navy Reserve nurse.

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Julie Clark of Rohnert Park marched in the parade with MOMS, the Mothers of Military Servicemen, for her son, Tom Clark, now serving in the Marine Corps.

"It hits home when my son is in it," Clark said. "I'm scared, proud, nervous and worried, so many emotions at once."

The Petaluma Valley Rotary Club dedicated a bench in front of the Walnut Park bandstand to highly decorated Vietnam veteran Sgt. Ron Flagg, a club member who died March 10.

"We are honoring him and we miss him," said Maureen Frances, a Rotary member who led the project. "He lit up the room when he came in with that smile of his."

You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or bob.norberg@pressdemocrat.com.