Monday, July 9, 2012

Welcome Home, veterans! . . . wherever you are

Way back in January, St.Louis became the first city to host a Welcome Home parade honoring veterans of the Iraq war. Six hundred vets turned out to march for a crowd of an estimated 100,000 supporters. That was the good news.

Then came the bad: despite the obvious success in St. Louis, politicians – and even military leadership – denied the requests for a national Welcome Home parade in New York. They voiced concerns that a national parade would be “inappropriate” and “premature” with troops still deployed to Afghanistan and other regions. (Then the city hosted a parade for the New York Giants after their Superbowl victory two weeks later . . . don’t even get me started.)

Without national endorsement, the Welcome Home movement was left to rely on grassroots support from local civic leaders and veterans organizations like the Iraq andAfghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). It has been snowballing . . . slowly . . . with many of the obliging cities expanding the effort to honor both Iraq and Afghanistan vets. Yesterday the snowball rolled through Portsmouth, NH. Since it’s showing no signs of coming to Boston, and that Portsmouth is just a hop, skip and massive liquor outlet away, my veteran-boyfriend Colin and I made the trip.

There was a decent turnout. The main downtown streets were lined two or three spectators deep. Business owners stepped outside to cheer as we passed, and families waved from porches and balconies.

Among the marchers were three bands, three (four?) honor guards, two beauty queens, a motorcycle-riding American legion contingent, The Shriners (complete with clowns and mini convertibles), a sizable group from the Boston chapter of the Veteran’s for Peace, a handful of local National Guard soldiers, and behind a banner near the front, those the parade was hosted to honor, the Iraq and Afghanistan vets . . . all 10 of us.

That’s right. The only forecasted parade in the entire New England region was able to draw a whopping 10 people.
Photo by Nathan S. Webster
In Nov, 2010, I joined IAVA for the national Veteran’s Day parade in New York City. Hundreds of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans marched, along with thousands more from World War II, Vietnam, Korea and Desert Storm. Hundreds of thousands of spectators crammed the sidewalks along 5th Ave. The parade was broadcast nationally. Still new to my “veteran” status, still fresh from my deployment, the turnout, the sentiment, everything left me awed. It felt good to be appreciated.

It was good to be appreciated in Portsmouth, too, but the feeling was more complicated. (Blame the cynicism that inevitably moves in when the deployment haze wears off.) I can’t help but be disappointed by the veteran turnout. Granted, New England is one of the most underrepresented regions in the military, but I know for a fact there are at least 11 of us out here. I understand not everyone could make it to Portsmouth, not everyone knew about the event, and certainly not everyone is the parade-marching type. Parades are awkward (to wave, or not to wave?), especially with such a small crowd of marchers – yesterday, I felt uncomfortably spotlighted. As a collective, though, I like to think the 10 of us represented thousands more. Maybe we helped put faces and names to a generation of veterans, to paint a picture for a community that otherwise would be left to paint their own (or to leave a blank canvas, as so many do).

Most veterans don’t seek attention, because most veterans don’t see themselves as heroes. For them, parades may seem glitzy and unnecessary. Many veterans rightly feel they’ve given enough; no need to waste precious hours parading through a community that hesitates to offer support beyond a handshake or a wave.

But if no one lends their face, their name, their story, we will remain but a string of policies and numbers. If civilian acknowledgement goes unacknowledged, we risk negating the effort, however ostentatious, however small.

Those were my thoughts yesterday, until I returned to Boston to learn that while we were marching, sevenU.S. soldiers were killed in Afghanistan. And I wondered how many of the Portsmouth spectators would see the headlines, how many would picture the faces behind the names, how many would feel a pang of grief – the ripples of lost innocence, lost potential – how quickly they would go back to their own unscathed lives.

I wondered how I was any different, when I had spent the day getting sunburned, networking, and drinking beer.

Now that 24 hours have passed, the cynicism has faded, as cynicism tends to do, and I’m left, while not satisfied, at least grateful.

I’m grateful for New Hampshire Governor John Lynch for supporting a parade on his soil, and to all those who took the time on a beautiful Sunday afternoon to stop and wave, make signs and holler “thank yous”. I got chills when an older gentleman in a Vietnam Veteran hat issued us a crisp salute. He was never welcomed home, and he personally made sure that we wouldn’t suffer the same disgraceful fate. He knows the last thing this nation needs is another generation of disenfranchised veterans.

I’m grateful for the young people who represent the 99% of this generation that hasn’t in any real way been affected by war, for taking a moment to acknowledge the 1% who have.

I’m grateful for the parents who, in some small way, helped show their children what it costs to be free, and how to be thankful for those who pay.

I’m grateful for the handful of my fellow Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, who collectively could piece together a jagged history of a decade and two theaters of war.

I’m grateful for the three bands, three or four honor guards, beauty queens, motorcyclists, clowns and mini cars, the Veterans for Peace, and everyone else who marched along with us.

I’m grateful for the bagpipes. Bagpipes are always cool.

Perhaps I’m giving everyone too much credit. Maybe I’m not giving them enough. I just hope that someday I can stand along a parade route, bitter and crotchety though I may be, and welcome home a new generation of veterans with a crisp salute.

Because there will be a new generation of veterans. As much as I’d love to – and do – join my fellow veterans who advocate peace (that perfect, idealistic, utopian state), I know that war is inevitable. Sovereignty, freedom, life is a constant shifting of power and control. Whether foreign or domestic, there will always be a call to serve. Whether by volunteer or requirement, there will always be an answer.

We can only hope there will always small tokens of thanks, like parades, to acknowledge the sacrifice that will always come with it. 

View additional parade photos by Nathan S. Webster here.

1 comment:

  1. I appreciated your take on this. As a OEF-era veteran, I similarly struggled with whether or not to participate (or write about) a late-June "Salute to our Veterans and Service Members” parade. The Des Moines, Iowa event had also been inspired by the St. Louis parade you mention. In terms of participation, it looks like it hit somewhere between St. Louis and Portsmouth, N.H.

    See link:

    I came to your blog by way of Nathan Webster, by the way, and look forward to following your journey as a veteran, writer, and blogger. Zap me an e-mail at sherpa AT I have some writerly information I'd like to share.

    In the meantime, like the Army Engineers say, "Essayons!"