Thousands of people lined the Old Post Road on Monday for Fairfield's Memorial Day parade to pay tribute to men and women killed in service to the nation -- with a special tribute to veterans of the Vietnam War on the 50th anniversary of that conflict.

The annual tribute featured dozens of marching bands, veterans, Fairfield police officers and firefighters, troops from the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Cub Scouts and a panoply of civic organizations.

"I think the crowd size is tremendous, and I'm impressed by the amount of young people attending the parade," said Harvey Sussman, a longtime Fairfield resident seated by the town's Honor Roll, which lists Fairfield residents who served in the nation's wars beginning in World War I. "It's nice to see the old timers that are participating, particularly the World War II vets, Korean War vets and Vietnam War vets."

The theme of this year's Memorial Day -- We welcome home our brave Vietnam veterans who served so well with heartfelt thanks, respect and honor this 2012 -- was especially important to Lee Karazulas, of Fairfield, who had claimed a viewing spot near the Fairfield YMCA to watch the parade.

Karazulas said she grew up during the Vietnam War and remembers feeling "very scared" and "very patriotic" as a child. "That was always on the television, always on the air," she said of the war.

"I did things like ballet and scouting, but there was a sadness to it," she said.

Karazulas said she especially wanted to come to this year's parade because the theme was welcoming home soldiers who served in that war.

"This year, I really want to see the men march. It will make me feel better," she said.

First Selectman Michael Tetreau said Vietnam War veterans deserve a special tribute.

"They missed out on it the first time around. We just want to say, `Thank you and welcome home, guys,' " he said.

Girl Scouts from North Stratfield School's third grade won first place for the best float in the parade, and Peggy Gagner, a leader of Troops 33014 and 33410, said the float, which was decorated with cutouts of town landmarks and the names of 600-plus Fairfield residents who served in the Vietnam War, was "a parade within a parade."

"The girls [in the float] were holding signs `Welcome Home.' We wanted to give them a nostalgic feel for the welcome they should have got in the '70s," Gagner said of Vietnam War veterans.

Jason Shay, who drove the float, agreed with the decision of Tetreau, Selectman James Walsh and state Sen. John McKinney, R-Fairfield, who judged the floats an hour before the parade started. "I think it's first place all day. Best float in town," Shay said.

Kathryn Zanvettor, a 9-year-old third-grader at North Stratfield who worked on the float, said she was "surprised and proud" when she heard the float had won first place. "Once I heard everyone screaming, I asked myself what happened, and I saw the sign that said `first place,' and I was so happy," she said.

Fairfield Probate Judge Daniel Caruso, who served as the parade emcee, said the best part of his vantage point on the Town Hall Green grandstand was seeing all the hard work that people put in to make the parade happen. "You can't thank people enough, both people who come and those who participate because there are so many who did so much for us," he said.

Caruso, who also served as parade emcee last year, said more people attended this year's parade than past parades. "There was a lot more than there was in the past and a lot more young kids, which was great," he said.

People who lined the parade route included those from other states who came to watch relatives in the parade.

Sam Hinkle, of Naples Fla., said he came to Fairfield with his wife, Elaine, to visit their son, David, and watch their grandchildren in the parade. "This is a great scene. I love it here," Sam said moments before the parade started at 10 a.m. "Very inspirational."

David Hinkle and his twin sons, Will and Peter, 8 years old, represented Cub Scout Pack 199 from Osborn Hill School in the parade, and David's family had claimed a prime spot along the parade route to watch them march by. "Our daughter-in-law knows the game so she came early to block off a little spot," Sam said.

Jen Hinkle, David's wife, said, "We like to be near the grandstand because we like to hear the announcements and what they say."

Martha Minto of Bridgeport, who at the parade with her son, Neal Minto, 11, and her friend, Trish Garton of Fairfield, had claimed a spot near St. Paul's Epsicopal Church and said she likes to come to the event for the pancakes served up by the church as well as to honor the U.S. Armed Forces and everyone who marches.

Spectators also included residents who just recently moved to Fairfield.

Katie Rende, who moved from Port Chester, N.Y. to Fairfield in January with her fiancee, Mike Schouten, and 1-year-old daughter, Sofia, had claimed a spot by Beach Road. "We just thought it would be fun to come down and see the residents, and it's a really family-oriented community, a really young community, so we thought it would be fun to come down and check it out," she said.

But Rende said it also was important to pay respect to men and women who serve in the military. "It reminds you it's not just about celebrations and barbecues and have a day off. It's about those who fight for us every day ... On a day like today, we remember them," she said.

Among those who marched in Fairfield Ludlowe High School's marching band, the first band in the line of march, was Davey Hawthorne, 15, a Ludlowe freshman who played the bass drum.

Hawthorne said marching in the parade was a lot of fun. "It was our biggest audience by a lot," he said as he walked back from the end of the parade route by the corner of Old Post and South Benson roads. "We have concerts with 300 to 400 people, but here nearly the entire town was watching us and clapping for us. It was really cool."

Cheryl Hawthorne, Davey's mother, said her youngest son, Billy, 13, a seventh-grader at Tomlinson Middle School, was in Tomlinson's marching band and her oldest son, Ben, 17, a junior at Ludlowe, also was in Ludlowe's marching band.

After the parade, the town held a brief ceremony on Town Hall Green to honor fallen servicemen and women.

"Let us remember the Vietnam veterans and all the men and women who made the supreme sacrifice so we might be free," said the Rev. Guido Montanaro, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Fairfield. "They gave their lives so we might enjoy all of this."

The keynote speaker, Boyd Saxton, past state commander of American Legion Post 202 in Newtown, said Memorial Day used to be known as "Decoration Day" because the graves of those killed in battle were decorated with flowers. He said 58,269 men and women were killed in the Vietnam War, 153,303 were wounded and 1,672 have been classified as missing in action.

Saxton, who served in the U.S. Army as a military policeman from 1972 to 1974, recalled going to a dinner for Gold Star mothers, who had lost a son in war, and that servicemen were asked to get in a line and hug one of the mothers. Saxton said the Gold Star mother he embraced gave him a bear hug. "She was hanging on like a bear, and she said, `Live for him,' " Saxton recalled.

"They're in our hearts more than when they were alive," Saxton said.

Sam Hinkle, who served in the U.S. Navy during peacetime from 1959 to 1961, said his wife's father, William Radcliffe Cameron, served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and was killed in that war.

"To think of serving in wartime is beyond what many of us can comprehend, I guess," Hinkle said. "There's nothing worse than wartime. Hopefully, we can do away with such things but it doesn't seem to happen, does it?"