A fallen Marine who lost his life in Operation Iraqi Freedom was honored this past week at a Florida elementary school.
Lance Corporal Andrew Julian Aviles gave the ultimate sacrifice just two weeks shy of his 19th birthday. Back then, the school created a “Warrior Garden,” complete with a stone and plaque dedicated to Aviles.
20 years later, Westshore Elementary in Tampa recently completed a months-long project of rejuvenating, renovating, and relandscaping the garden to give current and future generations of students a reminder of one of their own.
The project was spearheaded by School Resource Officer Joseph Foley.
“It didn’t sit right with me that we had a beautiful memorial there already and that nobody knew about his sacrifice. I felt like we could draw more attention to it and create something more to honor the memory and create more of a legacy for everyone who comes here,” Officer Foley said.
With a generous donation of mulch from Home Depot and volunteer marines from Marine Corps Forces Central Command (MARCENT) on MacDill Air Force Base, students, and staff got to work.
Students of military families spent time painting personalized rocks to lay around the memorial.
Later, Foley, school staff, and the Marines spent a day after school giving the garden new life.
They pruned, cleared out dead wood and debris, raked leaves, and laid brand-new mulch. It was all to give this special place new life and honor not only Lance Corporal Aviles but all the other military families at the school. Westshore sits right next to MacDill and has a large military population.
On May 24th, the school held a re-dedication ceremony complete with color guard and statements from school and military officials.
His mother, Norma Aviles, was a teacher at the school and sat in attendance along with Andy’s father, Oscar Aviles.
“He would not believe this was happening. He was a good kid. He was so funny,” his mother said.
“Then again, Andy is probably looking down saying I knew I would leave my mark somehow,” Oscar Aviles told me.
Coming full circle, a line of students, one after another, marched out to the garden, placing the rocks they had been painting into the mulch bed surrounding Aviles’ plaque.
It was a months-long labor of love for a school that has a very deep connection with our Armed Services to thank a soldier who gave his life to protect us and let his parents know he will never be forgotten. Andrew’s father was so moved he stood up during the ceremony to let everyone there know how much this means to them.
“We Just want to thank anybody and everybody who had a hand in our son’s memorial. It’s really appreciated by the family and lets us know that there is still people who think about him, love him, and will remember him for a while,” Lance Corporal Aviles’ father said to people in attendance.