I was living in Battery Park City in 1985, directly across the street from the Twin Towers, just off the Hudson River. On the morning of Tuesday May 7th, I was dressing in clothing I’d pulled out of boxes and closets the night before. I’d filled out a bit in the past 16 years but the cammy fatigues still fit pretty good, my jungle boots were appropriately scuffed and my beret felt somehow familiar.
As I was exiting the lobby, my doorman remarked on the unusual way I was dressed and I explained to Kevin that a parade had been organized for all Vietnam veterans of New York who were willing to participate. I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I didn’t know anyone else who planned to be there but I’d decided I wanted to be a part of it.
I’m an actor. I’m used to attracting attention and I’m accustomed to wearing costumes, but generally on a set or in a studio. This was and yet wasn’t a costume. It was a return to the way I dressed for work ‘back in the day’, back before war drag became au courant, before sexy women posed in camouflage bikinis for fashion layouts.
I was greeted with nods and friendly smiles from commuters as I entered the WTC to take a subway to Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, where the parade would step off. We weren’t so far removed from the time when the wearing of combat fatigues attracted the negative judgement of many Americans. It had always seemed to me far easier to simply fly under that radar. I was proud of my service; I never really felt the need to justify myself and my choices to anyone – who needs the aggravation? But this event seemed to signal a shift in that sentiment. America had slowly been learning not to blame the warrior for the war. Better late than never.
Our route of march would bring us across the Brooklyn Bridge and down into the canyons of lower Manhattan, ending at its southern tip in Battery Park. As I exited the subway station at Grand Army Plaza, I was somewhat stunned to discover this huge assemblage of veterans dressed in an assortment of military garb. Some were in full uniform. Others wore a portion of their old outfits, like a fatigue or dress jacket with decorations and patches. Some wore just a baseball cap or boonie hat with insignia. Marines, Navy, Air Force, Army – all branches of the service were represented and the gathering was intensely multi-cultural.
There were thousands of men (2500 marched), some with their kids or wives, and although I knew no one, I felt instantly at home and suddenly part of a majority. I wandered thru the crowds, exchanging nods and smiles, not sure what I was looking for but wanting to get a wider sense of this gathering.
I’d been an advisor for Military Assistance Corps Vietnam or MACV, which no longer existed. Long standing units like the Cav, The Big Red One, Special Forces and others held annual reunions and men found themselves reconnecting with old comrades after years of separation. For years I watched that scenario play out, struggling with my ambivalence. I was happy for them…and envious. (In the early ’90s I discovered COUNTERPARTS, a national organization of men who’d served as advisors during that time throughout Southeast Asia. Those men understood my history… but that was years in my future.)
A former 1st Lt. from the 173rd called out to me “Airborne!” and waved me over. We exchanged introductions and then I met a few of his friends. Mike Schwartz was a former Infantry platoon leader and now a vice-president for Van Heusen shirts. They invited me to march with them and I was happy to have that decision settled. We gathered behind the banner of Manhattan Vietnam Veterans Outreach Center, a support group founded and staffed by Angel Almedina. My VVA chapter now bears his name to honor his memory.
A loudspeaker asked us to form ranks and we prepared to step off into history. This was not a youthful procession, many of us were gray and paunchy, some in wheelchairs or on canes and crutches. But we instinctively dressed and covered and as we passed across the Brooklyn Bridge, we walked a little taller, a little more erect.
There was a pride in our steps, and while not in strict parade mode, there was a sense of order and uniformity. We could hear the sound of drums in front of and behind us, and each man that could, intuitively began marching in cadence.
When we exited the Bridge and turned south down Broadway, we discovered both sides of the streets thronged with onlookers, cheering and waving and shouting to us, “Thank you!” and “Welcome Home!” As we looked up at the skyscrapers on both sides, we could see the windows on every floor filled with office workers, they too applauding and cheering and waving. And the air was suddenly filled with streamers of ticker tape and confetti. It was an amazing, intensely emotional moment and we looked at each other, as if to share and validate this singular experience.
I knew what I’d done in the service of my country. I’ve never felt unrequited or in need of anyone else’s approval for that time of my life. But I can say without any embarrassment that this seemed almost an outpouring of love…and coming from so many, many Americans after so long, many of us were wiping tears from our eyes. We were grateful to receive their affections and sad that so many of us had survived the war but passed on before America chose to express its gratitude.
That parade was an historic event – in New York, in America and in my life. It began a series of events throughout America to honor its Vietnam veterans, unacknowledged for so long. That day, I met men who have become lifelong friends. There was Glen, a Black mountain of Force Recon Marine, now a Michelin chef, who became like a big brother to me. Vince, another former Marine (Hoo-rah!) was now a restaurateur and we often gathered at one of his bars after an event for sandwiches and beer and fellowship. Arthur was…well Arthur, a former SF colonel, was rich. He could say what he did now, but would then have to kill you. There was Tom, a former Navy noncom, now an environmentalist, designing waterfront parks for New York and other cities. Eric, a former sniper with the 101st Abn. was now a building manager. Bob was a former grunt, and now pretty much a scam artist. Some of us became his victims but we still feel affection for him. Mark was the Eurasian son of missionaries; during the war a recondo type, now a mercenary for hire in Africa and Central America, unwilling to give up his craft, unable to live without it. And so forth. We were businessmen, entrepreneurs, spooks, chefs, mercenaries, artists – some of us wildly successful, some struggling. We were Irish, Jewish, Italian, Asian, Black, Latino – all brothers in arms.
I became one of the first members of Chapter 126, the Manhattan chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America. We did and continue to do much good work on behalf of our community and veterans, those from our time and those who’ve earned that distinction more recently.
As Sgt. of Arms and a delegate for our chapter, I participated in several national conventions and later marched in Chicago when that great city chose to honor their veteran community. Although I had attended the dedication of The Wall in 1982, this event began my direct involvement in veterans advocacy. I’ve marched in parades with my brothers since then, on many a Veterans Day and Memorial Day, but you never forget your first.