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It tried its best, but Saturday morning’s downpour didn’t drench any celebratory spirits during Vancouver’s 33rd annual Lough Legacy Veterans Day Parade at the Fort Vancouver National Site.
Big crowds still lined Officers Row while waves of participants — marching reservists to Gold Star families, roaring motorcyclists to horseback riders, high school bands to classic cars — just kept coming and coming, rain or no rain.
“Thank you for your service,” Officers Row resident Olivie Engleman told Vancouver visitor Don Helmick, who was easily identifiable as a veteran under his Vietnam War Army Veteran hat.
“It sure is different than when we came back from Vietnam,” Helmick said of the whole appreciative parade atmosphere. After he came home from Vietnam, Helmick said, he started to attend the University of Chicago — but felt so discouraged and singled out by anti-military protests there, he gave it up.
But since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Helmick added, popular sentiment toward the military has warmed up considerably. “I thank you for saying that,” he told Engleman, accepting her friendly handshake. Several of Helmick’s sons are serving in the military now, he said, and he’s glad to see them getting the respect they deserve.
“When I went in, everybody was going to Canada,” remembered Ron Hieter of Vancouver, who chose the Army nonetheless and was stationed in Germany during the Vietnam War. “People were not nice to us, to anybody in uniform, in those days,” he added. Hieter still thinks about some friends who did go to Vietnam and never came home, he said, and about one who committed suicide after returning. “Military service is stressful in ways people don’t know,” he said.
That’s why Hieter always comes out to the Lough Legacy Parade — rain or shine — decked out in his military ribbons and decorations.
“I do this as a service to the veterans,” he said. “I remember what it was like, and I want to show my respect.”
“It’s challenging to come back,” said Cindy Slusher of Brush Prairie, who has welcomed several sons home from tours of duty overseas with the Marines. “You are so full of adrenaline, and suddenly you have so much time on your hands. You’re not sure what you should be doing anymore. It’s a big readjustment.”
Those two sons found meaningful ways to continue serving, added Slusher: One is a police officer, another a county sheriff. And Slusher was one of the first to turn out on Saturday morning, with a whole gaggle of children, to grab a prime viewing station beside the VIP platform outside of Providence Academy.
“Service is a calling.” she said. “Some people are called to take on that very difficult job so the rest of us don’t have to. It’s scary, but it’s great.”
More than 100 parade entries, nearly 2,400 marchers and as many as 5,000 spectators were expected on Saturday morning — and it sure seemed like those numbers materialized, despite the rain.
Before the parade, a VIP ceremony inside the Providence Academy ballroom featured remarks by several dignitaries, including parade grand marshal and retired Army Lt. Col. Bob Knight, the last commander of the Vancouver Barracks (which closed in 2011), and keynote speaker Brig. Gen. Donna Prigmore, commander of the Oregon Air National Guard.
Standing at the back of the ballroom in full dress uniform, retired Washington State Guard Sgt. Maj. Leslie Wright said being in the military helped turn his life around.
“When you are young you do stupid things, and maybe there’s nobody there to tell you otherwise,” he said. “The military stopped me from doing that. It’s like a parent. For 32 years I’ve been doing whatever I can to better myself and help other people.
“Every young man and every young woman should spend two years in the military,” Wright said.
After the parade came something new: a social mixer and information fair sponsored by the Community Military Appreciation Committee, complete with refreshments and activities for children. Dozens of military, military-related and social-service organizations lined the cafeteria at Hudson’s Bay High School, but organizer Mike Burton was equally excited by the presence of local businesses who proudly employ veterans. Burton wants people going about their daily lives to be aware of veterans all around them, he said.
“When you go to Home Depot to buy something, maybe you’re talking to a salesman who was in the service,” Burton said. “We just want to make sure people know.”
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