No parades awaited my generation. Separation papers in hand, I mounted a plane in San Francisco and grabbed a window seat where I wouldn’t have to look at people staring at my uniform and green beret. Following a year in Vietnam at A-107, a Special Forces camp in I-Corps where I’d lost teammates, popped a few clips of .556 rounds at Charlie and toured some of the densest jungle on Earth, I was on the final leg back to “the world.”
We came home one at a time, one day a warrior, the next just another Joe standing in some employment office looking for work. That was our parade. Mine was standing in a line for the unemployed and then later at a union hall hearing a man tell me I couldn’t apprentice as a carpenter because I didn’t have a “sponsor.”
The next day I went to the American Legion Post, where I had beer and asked about joining. This was in December 1966 and the Legion was run by World War II and Korean War vets. I was told being in Vietnam didn’t qualify me, that it wasn’t considered a war, just a “police action.” I guess the four teammates and 50-odd Montagnard in my A-camp died playing cops and robbers. I just hadn’t figured it out before.
The rest of my welcome-home parade consisted of going from print shop to print shop and from contractor’s office to contractor’s office seeking work. That’s the parade I remember, a parade of one. To be clear, I’m not angry over it. That return home and the reality that no one cared that I had served, shaped my life as much as Vietnam itself.
I once rode my motorcycle in a Memorial Day parade with a group of middle-aged Legionnaires. The whole affair took maybe an hour, for me, an hour of hell I vowed never to repeat. We lined up in between several high-school bands and a small fleet of trucks and convertibles ferrying a mix of teenage beauties and elderly veterans who wore blazers and caps with gold- and silver-embroidered patches that proclaimed their branch of service. Las Vegas summer was already at full strength; by midmorning we were roasting in our biking leathers. Announced by brass and drum, the parade set off westerly on a street in Summerlin.
Each time we advanced 20 or 30 feet, the lead bikers would hoist their hands, signaling us to stop, and we would sit stationary for three or four minutes at a time, heat radiating up like a campfire from the asphalt. Nothing, not even buckets of ice water, could cut the discomfort. I looked at the others riding beside me, most of them pleased to be there as they waved to kids sitting on the curbs. Only they and the children and a handful of women seemed to get a charge out of us throttling past.
If my reaction to that hot day seems jaded, it’s not only because the parade came a few decades late. It’s got more to do with what our military holidays have become. I meet people who are entirely unaware of the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day. For the record, Memorial Day honors fallen soldiers, a tradition that began in 1868 to honor the Civil War dead. Veterans Day, meanwhile, was originally Armistice Day, a day to honor those who served in World War I, the War to End All Wars, which concluded on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. Over the years, it evolved from a day to honor combat soldiers into a salute to those who served in any capacity. Today, it has been reduced to a day when Americans get paid to stay home.
Now a fresh crop of veterans returns from war zones where the line between combat and support soldier has blurred and women have been front-lined as pilots, military police and transportation specialists. Those returning for discharge will re-enter society during the worst economic cycle seen in 70 years. Parades on Veterans Day will honor these new vets even as a large percentage of them become unemployment statistics. Their medals won’t put food on the table or heat their apartments.
Among them, some will suffer painful memories, have difficulty adjusting, abuse alcohol or drugs. Some will resort to suicide. Few will tell their stories, mostly because they now have their own language that only their fellow veterans understand. Those who don’t suffer now from the after-effects of combat may well find the symptoms were only delayed. One day years or decades later they may feel as if a vice is clamping down on their temples and their heart will beat like a jackhammer and they will find themselves standing in line at a VA center. That’s their real Veterans Day Parade.
On that hot Memorial Day, as I straddled my motorcycle, I realized I didn’t fit in with the bikers revving their throttles to thrill the spectators. All among them had served during time of war, but never in combat. The attention they received during the parade seemed to fill an unrealized need in them, some belated reward for their service. The parade confirmed what I’d long felt about the difference between those who hadn’t been under fire and those who had: My reward was merely being alive.
Call me a snob or an elitist, call me a curmudgeon or just bitter or cynical, but on days set aside to honor warriors, I celebrate by displaying a flag, and the only company I care to share is with those men who held the line under fire, who hunkered down at the sound of incoming, men who shared a cigarette with a buddy in the aftermath of loading a body bag on a chopper, men who humped mountain slopes dense with tropical brush and picked leeches off their legs and who still smile whenever the subject comes up in conversation among others like themselves.
To all others, I say, enjoy the parades.