This North Carolina Balloon Festival Gives the Perfect Tribute to Fallen Soldiers
Memorial Day weekend is the perfect time to kick back with your family. Still, many people forget the true intent of the holiday: to commemorate the millions of Americans who died serving our country.
Former NFL Lineman and First Fruits Farm owner Jason Brown wanted to help families remember the holiday's true purpose. That’s why he started the N.C. Memorial Balloon Festival in 2021. The balloon fest, which takes place May 27–28 (now June 3-4 due to rescheduling) in Louisburg, NC, will give families several opportunities to commemorate fallen soldiers while watching hot air balloons fly through the sky.
"We're trying to bring back the remembrance of Memorial Day and to honor all of our heroes and those that have fallen," Jason Brown said. "It's not just an event for community engagement. It really is an awesome time for reflection and fellowship."
Each year, Jason Brown dedicates the N.C. Memorial Balloon Festival to his late brother, Lunsford Bernard Brown II, who was killed in action on September 20, 2003, while serving in Iraq. For Jason Brown, the balloon fest is more than a weekend of remembrance. It's a chance to connect with others like him — families with loved ones killed in action.
"When you are able to give some hugs and share some tears, that helps more than time," Brown said.
Families wishing to honor a fallen soldier this Memorial Day weekend can plant a flag in the festival’s flag garden. Each flag can be personalized with the soldier's name, scripture, or photograph for a moving and inspirational experience. The veterans' group, Military Missions in Action (MMIA), will provide the stick flags. You can learn more about the Memorial Flag Garden on the festival’s website.
Tribute to a Fallen Soldier
Growing up, Lunsford Brown was the type of person to give the shirt off his own back — literally. Always the first to volunteer, comrades and family members would tell stories of his generosity, from giving away his drawings as Christmas presents to joining the military at 18.
While Lunsford was serving, Jason Brown was pursuing a football career. As a high school senior, he received a full-ride scholarship to play for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Jason Brown was just a junior in college, prepping for football season, when he received the call that Lunsford was killed in action.
Although Jason Brown would continue playing football for several more years, even landing a $35 million contract with the NFL in 2011, he felt something was missing in his life.
“Eventually God spoke to me and said I haven’t been blessing you all this time for my blessings to stop at you,” Jason Brown said, “I’ve been blessing you for my blessings to flow through you.”
Later that year, Jason Brown walked away from the NFL and decided to return to his home state of North Carolina. In 2012, he started his farm and ministry. Since then, he and his family have harvested and donated over one million pounds of food, helping alleviate hunger for thousands of North Carolina families.
Jason Brown always wanted to make a special tribute to his brother. Meanwhile, Chris Wrenn, a former N.C. state center and owner of Old North State Catering, was always looking for ways to give back to the heroes of the United States military. After the two of them met, they came up with the idea of hosting the N.C. Memorial Balloon Festival.
Since the event’s inception, Chris Wrenn and the NC Memorial Operations Director John Usedom have worked hard to perfect the event’s logistics, relying on the help of their volunteers and in-kind sponsorships.
“Without our volunteers, it would be impossible to make [the event] happen,” Wrenn said.
While the event centers around Memorial Day, there is no shortage of family-friendly activities. Families can book chartered balloon rides in advance or enjoy a tethered balloon ride for $20. They can also shop at the arts and craft market, watch dogs perform tricks, listen to live music, and watch the nightly fireworks show.
“As much as we can, we try to have veteran-owned businesses or veteran-owned groups,” John Usedom said. “The money that we make goes back to the non-profit groups, like the MMIA and Wreaths Across America.”
To help honor fallen soldiers, there will be a flag ceremony at 6:10 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday during peak balloon riding hours. For Brown, Wrenn, and Usedom trying to balance celebration with the event's mission is challenging but worthwhile.
“Most of the people, the families and the veterans say they want the celebration piece,” Usedom said. “They wouldn’t want people looming around. They want people to celebrate what they did and why they did it.”
Visit the NC Memorial Day Balloon Festival website to learn more about the event. If you are looking for ways to support fallen soldiers, consider purchasing an Honor and Remember flag or a Lest They Be Forgotten flag. Proceeds from the latter flags will go to the “Lest They Be Forgotten” foundation, which helps establish memorials for soldiers who died protecting our country.