Joe Featherston wore many hats before becoming the director of Aiken’s 17th annual Memorial Day Parade – from materials management for Pan American World Airways, to president and CEO of Airbus Service Company Inc., to founding his own aviation operations company, while also fulfilling the duties of husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

It all started, though, with the hat he wore as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps when he enlisted in 1956, Featherston said.

“At the time, I was 16 years old with fairly good intelligence and doing very poorly in school. I got tired of bumping in West Philadelphia, and I figured I needed to do something to change my life,” he said. “The Marine Corps, basically, was the motivational force that changed my life. It changed my life.”

Featherston served from 1956 to 1978, including nine years in ground forces and 12 years in aviation support, retiring holding the rank of Major. That included two trips to Vietnam in the heat of the Vietnam War.

“I was very fortunate,” Featherston said. “I know a dozen guys on the Vietnam Wall that I served with personally.”

Featherston said there were plenty of difficult parts about his time in the military: boot camp at Parris Island, amphibious landings at 4 a.m. and the stress of Officer Candidate School. But nothing compared to combat.

“No matter how tough your day is, getting shot at with real bullets is the marker,” he said.

There was much to be enjoyed while in the Corps, too, he said, including the friendships and camaraderie among soldiers, and the responsibility gained.

“A 21-year-old Marine has more responsibility at that age than some 35- and 40-year-old civilians have,” he said.

Featherston obtained a GED and associates degree while in the military and got a bachelor’s degree after retiring. He joined National Airlines in 1978, and from there ascended the ranks of the aviation industry.

Featherston left Airbus Service Company Inc. in 1993 and founded NOVA Advisory Group International, an aviation operations, maintenance, training and logistics consultancy. He and his wife of 30 years came to Aiken in 2006.

Featherston said he’d never heard of Aiken before he came to visit friends shortly before moving here. In July 2006, they returned for another visit with a checklist.

“It was all the things that were important to us in a place to live. Aiken had every one of them,” he said. “There’s a sense of community here; it’s not just the neighbors on your side.”

Featherston has been involved with the Memorial Day Parade for a few years.

“Up until last year, I was the guy that handled all the military stuff in the parade,” he said. “I got drafted as the director of the parade.”

Featherston said Aiken’s Memorial Day Parade is the largest of only three in the state. Today’s events will have all military units near the front of the parade, “so the onlookers will really understand what Memorial Day is as opposed to something else,” he said.

Featherston said he thinks people are forgetting the meaning behind the holiday, and he hopes today’s events remind them.

“There’s a tendency to forget why we’re doing it,” he said. “There’s a lot of organizations around the country that work very hard to keep this in the forefront of people’s consciousness.”