Written by Master Chief Petty Officer Eric Heimburger.
In November 1919, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed November 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day. That day, U.S. Army Gen. John Pershing led a parade of 25,000 U.S. heroes of World War I down Fifth Avenue in New York City before thousands of cheering citizens. Pershing’s legacy continues to this day as America’s Parade – the largest Veterans Day parade in the country. My shipmates and I had the privilege to march in this parade allowing me to reflect on Veterans Days past.
Over the last 26 years of my Coast Guard career, Veterans Day observances have come in many forms. As a petty officer 3rd class, there was the parade in which I pulled our station’s 22-foot boat, full of crewman holding on for dear life. There were cemetery services, honor guard details, rifle teams, 21-gun salutes, the placement of flags on graves and sometimes even a free dinner at a local restaurant.
The most memorable ceremony was at Union Street Elementary School in South Weymouth, Mass., when military parents were invited to an assembly in their service’s uniform. The students honored us with patriotic songs, plays and cupcakes – of course. It was a very touching tribute and probably the first time I felt as though I was being honored as a veteran.
When it comes down to it, honoring Veterans is all about remembrance. People need to understand that the worst thing in the world is to feel as though you have been forgotten by the people and country for which you’ve served. Something as simple as stopping to talk to a veteran in the park would mean the world to them.
I was walking with my father-in-law, a Vietnam-era Marine, over the weekend and a young man stopped him, noticing his Marine Corps hat. He told him, “Happy birthday, sir,” referring to the Marine Corps’ upcoming birthday on November 10. This young man, as it turned out is a Marine himself and took the time to make that old Marine feel as though he was serving in the Corps once again.
Many years ago, Fireman David Boron and I were approached by an elderly man who silently appeared to be conducting his own uniform inspection. After a few minutes his eyes welled up, he nodded to the two of us and walked away. Boron and I looked at each other wondering what just happened when the man’s wife approached. Sensing our confusion, she told us her husband served in the Coast Guard during World War II on the Greenland Patrols and lost good friends during the war. She went on to explain that he becomes very emotional every time he sees the Coast Guard.
Taking the time to meet a veteran, laying a wreath on a veteran’s grave and, most of all, learning about what these veterans have gone through, are ways to keep their memories alive and preserve our nation’s history.
Now as I settle in to my “twilight tour” as command master chief of Coast Guard Sector New York, I note with excitement my participation in this year’s Veterans Day. Why the excitement? Because New Yorkers love Veterans as much as they love a good parade. Iconic images of ticker-tape parades down the “Canyon of Heroes” are some of the most recognizable images in our history and this year’s parade was nothing less than spectacular. I’m proud to have been one of roughly 350 men, women and children from the greater New York Coast Guard community who participated in this year’s Veterans Day parade.