Tuesday was windy, cloudy and cold. This was to be the first Veterans Day parade that I would take part in. My father-in-law, a retired major and Vietnam veteran, had asked me to accompany him on this walk.
I saw active duty from 1980 through 1984 in the U.S. Navy. I did see a little combat with two tours in Lebanon and one in Grenada and received the Navy Expeditionary Medal for those engagements. But I stood among real vets this day — not that I was not a real vet, but today I felt that I was standing in a class of heroes.
These men would not want to be called that. Most will say that it was their job or duty. My heart swelled as my father-in-law introduced me to various men, and each man accepted me as their own with no questions. I was greeted with a hearty handshake and an instant “welcome to the club” look. There were men from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and newcomers from Desert Storm and Iraq and Afghanistan. There was even a small showing of Civil War re-enactors representing soldiers of an era long past. There was no group for the Cold War era that I served in, so I was told I could walk with the Vietnam vets or the Desert Storm group. I decided to join my father-in-law with the Vietnam vets.
The master sergeant started forming our lines and his voice barked over our units with authority, as I imagine it did many years ago. The voice of a master sergeant can put the fear of God into you. All started forming up, officers and enlisted alike. The camaraderie of these “brothers in arms” had no prejudice of gender, color, creed or race. I was standing tall, proud to be given the honor of walking beside these great men.
This, for me, was a great day in the Bangor-Brewer parade. Three generations of my family were marching in this parade. My father-in-law and I were walking with the Vietnam veterans, and my son was carrying the American flag in the honor guard for the Civil Air Patrol.
At precisely 10:30 we started a good, brisk pace to keep warm. As we started passing people on the streets, I witnessed most of them clapping, some yelling “thank you,” but all with heart-felt emotion. I can tell you I was feeling a sense of pride; my faith in my country and its people was once again restored.
I choked back tears when we passed a fellow vet sitting in a lawn chair beside the road. He wore his hat, which identified him as a Korean vet, and beside him was his walking stick with stickers of parades long past. Now he could only sit and watch. It started with the colonel in the front of our ranks, who smartly saluted this man, then walked over to shake his hand. Our column responded with a salute of their own.
Men, women and children had braved the elements to give their undying gratitude to generations of soldiers that had sacrificed everything to ensure our freedom at home. Small-town America showed its advantage again.
We made it to the reviewing stand where we all stopped. The national anthem was played, and all stood at attention. Some saluted, some removed their hats, but all stood strong and proud. There was a hushed silence over the crowd as they observed the veterans’ demeanor change from laughing and having a good time to snapping to attention and standing proud.
At the end of the parade, the Vietnam vets were told to disengage and to stand by to welcome a new generation of veterans as the Desert Storm and newest anti-terrorist forces passed. As these newest soldiers marched by, the Vietnam vets snapped to attention and saluted them, thanking them and welcoming them home.
My fellow citizens of Maine made me very proud this day. As one soldier said, “If I could turn 18 again, I would go and do it all over again.” As corny as it sounds, there are still people in this world whose blood flows red, white and blue. There are still men and women who are ready to make the ultimate sacrifice so that we may be free.
What made me proudest to be a vet this day was you, you who made it important enough in your life to come and thank us, for it was and is for you, we proudly serve. And if our bodies would let us, we, the proud brothers and sisters in arms, would once again do it all over without hesitation. May God take care of and bless those of us who have fallen and watch over those who are still protecting us.
Lonnie Wilcox of Hampden is a U.S. Navy veteran.