J.E.J. Moore Memorial Day Tribute Ceremony Keeps Holiday's Themes of Honor, Remembrance at Community's Forefront

May 23, 2024
In what has evolved into a tradition and a fixture of the Prince George County and PGCPS community, J.E.J. Moore Middle School students and staff welcomed dozens of people to the front lawn of the campus for their annual Memorial Day Tribute Ceremony on Thursday, May 23, 2024. 

The event, days before Memorial Day, serves as a reminder of the true meaning of the holiday, an opportunity to reflect on those who gave their life for the freedoms our nation enjoys, and honor each of them by remembering their names and never forgetting their sacrifice.


For the J.E.J. Moore Middle School community, Memorial Day takes on a personal meaning as the annual event, entering its 12th year, honors one of its former students, Captain Jesse Ozbat. Ozbat was a member of the U.S. Army's 168th Brigade Support Battalion who lost his life while serving in Afghanistan after enemy forces targeted his group with an improvised explosive device attack in 2012. The attack also claimed the lives of fellow soldier Tobias Alexander and an interpreter paired with the group.

Memorial Day Ceremony

Thursday, under pristine blue skies, dozens of J.E.J. Moore students and staff members joined members of the Prince George County School Board and Board of Supervisors and current and veteran members of America's armed forces for the one-hour ceremony. The service featured musical selections from the J.E.J. Moore Royal Band, conducted by longtime music teacher and band director John Redling, the 6th and 7th Grade PAAS Choir, directed by Travis Krickovic, and original poetry selections from students Lottie Gum, Aston Hamilton, and Piper Harrison aligning with the themes of the holiday. 

This year's speaker was Riley Rakes, a recipient of the Captain Jesse Ozbat "Honor Above All" Scholarship, former J.E.J. Moore Middle School student, and current Prince George County first responder, who reminded the audience of the gravity of the holiday and its meaning to those who have lost a loved one as they served their nation.

"How should we spend our Memorial Day weekend," Rakes asked the guests, students, and others on hand for the event. "Of the service members I have talked about today, none of them ever seemed to want other people to be miserable. At the same time, we shouldn't brush away the gravity of death. We should not simplify it that these people did die and that dying is easy or something that should be taken lightly."

Memorial Day Ceremony

Rakes continued, "Instead, we should find a middle ground. We should remember these people this weekend. We should remember that there are hundreds of thousands more stories out there, stories of brave Americans who gave their own lives for honor and service. We should also find peace that God put these people into the world and that we are better off for it."

"We should go beyond this weekend and strive to be like these individuals, striving to live with such commitment and moral clarity that we can pray we would be willing to make similar sacrifices should the need ever arise. We should spend time with our families as these men and women died so we could do so in peace," Rakes closed.

Jamie Westbay, retired district librarian, made the check presentation to The John Randolph Foundation, facilitators of the Captain Jesse Ozbat "Honor Above All" Scholarship, noting Thursday's donation was a record for the Memorial Day Tribute Ceremony, with $4,500 being contributed to the scholarship fund. 

The donation comprised thousands of dollars raised by J.E.J. Moore Middle School students and staff, special events hosted by PGCPS schools, such as South Elementary School's recent car wash benefiting the scholarship, contributions from Prince George High School's athletic teams and clubs, Prince George County Parks & Recreation, and many others. 

"These community efforts were remarkable, very successful, well thought out, and important in continuing the 'Honor Above All Scholarship,'" Westbay said. "The amazing Prince George community has not only honored Captain Ozbat, but 12 years after his passing, continues to say we remember, and we thank you."

Memorial Day Ceremony

In addition, the Prince George Nutrition Services Organization continued its tradition of supporting the scholarship fund, donating $500 to the "Honor Above All" Scholarship. President Joanne Moyer and regional manager Tom Giusto presented a check to The John Randolph Foundation's representatives, Kevin Foster and Bonnie Falls, just before the flag ceremony, a signature event of the decade-long tribute ceremony. 

During the ceremony, Moore students Jaekub Bogenrief and Scarlett Costello read the names of fallen Prince George County service members as the school's honor detachment placed an American flag in the school's memorial garden, one for each soldier named. The final flag, coinciding with the reading of Ozbat's name, was placed in the garden by J.E.J. Moore's social studies teacher, Rodney Leary. As "Taps," performed by student Dylan Mastroianni, echoed through the campus, Leary, the former infantry special forces member-turned-educator, delivered a poignant salute as dozens of American flags gently flew in the memorial greenspace. 

Memorial Day Ceremony

This year's ceremony had special meaning for Leary, who is retiring after nearly 30 years in education. After the event, Leary was presented with a painting featuring him amongst the American flags saluting the fallen, a gift that highlighted the important place the ceremony has in the heart and soul of the J.E.J. Moore Middle School community.

"Having had both Jesse and his widow as students at Prince George High School and knowing them for that long, being able to honor him in this way is phenomenal," he said. "Every year, while the adults are involved in preparing for this event, these students are truly the ones who pull this off. I have students who did this when they were students at Moore return to help out after transitioning to N.B. Clements Junior High School, and this speaks so highly of our incredible students."

To learn more about the Captain Jesse Ozbat "Honor Above All" Endowed Scholarship, visit The John Randolph Foundation website at https://johnrandolphfoundation.org/scholarships/