When it comes to supporting the troops, Valley Forge Military Academy & College in Wayne has few peers.

The civilian world should take note. Though it can't match the school for pageantry and precision, there's much to learn here about the value of small gestures of respect and appreciation.

Start with the organist, Glenna Sprang, who arrives well over an hour before the 11 a.m. service, the pink of her dress a perfect match for the blossoming weeping cherry trees.

Then there's the seventh-grade cadet, Henry Schappert, who bends down - careful not to soil the white pants of his dress uniform - to polish the brass star in front of the last set of steps into St. Cornelius the Centurion chapel. His task is considered a high honor, as the star commemorates the 126 Valley Forge alums who have died in service to their country.

These are weekly rituals made more special by the occasion: A welcome home from Iraq for the college's former dean, Lt. Col. John C. Church Jr., whose family my colleague Art Carey profiled in The Inquirer on March 8.

Finally, blessedly, spring has arrived, to the dismay only of those wearing Valley Forge's traditional gray woolen tunics.

One of the first guests on campus is Lance Cpl. Peter Vandyk. He's with his proud and relieved mother, who welcomed him home from Iraq just weeks ago.

He traveled from Colorado for the day's events, to stand with other Marines who served with Church in Anbar province. And soon, they, too, arrive, some with girlfriends or wives, some with children or parents. There are about a dozen, in dress uniforms bedecked with ribbons. They are mostly NCOs, and mostly men, but there are a couple of officers, including a female captain.

As they gather on the brick walkways around the chapel, there are smiles, salutes, handshakes, introductions to family. They change places as they pose in one another's pictures.

In a few hours, they will stand at attention, shoulder to shoulder under a blazing sun, in two rows behind the day's guest of honor as the corps of cadets passes in review. Such parades are a tradition that dates to Washington's assumption of command of the Continental Army.

Each unit of the academy will take its turn. The regimental band, and the drum and bugle corps. A, B and C Companies on foot, D Troop on horseback, and E Battery in trucks pulling artillery pieces.

As the cadets pass the reviewing stand, they hear the command, "Eyes right."

Their heads snap in that direction, and the guest of honor raises his hand in salute, holding it until each unit passes.

When the official review has ended, the Marines will fall out and make a point of shaking the hands of the cadets.

The day started at 10:45 a.m., with herald trumpeters playing the traditional call to worship - and a few bars of "The Marines' Hymn" for the guests.

That signals the cadets, who have gathered in formation in the field below, to march into the chapel, saluting the brass star as they pass. They file down the center aisle, past the stained-glass windows honoring the likes of Washington, Lincoln, Marshall and Pershing, and take their seats.

It is a nondenominational, though Christian, service that emphasizes religion, patriotism and character. There's the procession of the colors; the "Cadet Prayer" and the "Apostle's Creed"; a reading from Ephesians; a recitation of the names of alumni who died on Sept. 11, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq; the playing of "Taps."

And there's this: a sermon by the returning vet, one that combines his experiences with the theme of trustworthiness, the school's virtue of the month.

On a day full of tributes marked by care and dignity, this one stands out. A vet is given a chance to be heard, free of media and political filters. He has a moment to speak to his community - family and friends, his parents and his children, fellow veterans, and former students and colleagues.

It's the kind of small gesture of respect and appreciation that doesn't require a wealth of military knowledge to bestow. Any community can offer it; more of them should.

Contact Kevin Ferris at 610-701-7629 or kf@philllynews.com.