Veterans Day parades are interesting for who is in the parades and who is watching the parades from the sidelines.
Watch enough parades and you can see the transition veterans of our wars make over time.
I can still remember watching the parades in the late 70s and early 80s when the World War II veterans were still the dominant group – the definition of veterans to my generation – along with a few World War I vets.
Watching from the sidewalk in a few clusters, the recently returned Vietnam vets in the old Army jackets and blue jeans.
These days they are the ones back in uniform for a day, walking in the parades, waving to children and saluting the flag – safely past the turbulent personal transition that is part of what we ask those in our military to endure but never seem to plan adequately for despite seeing this for several generations.
Some things have changed. Those in our military volunteer and are no longer drafted.
The terrain that shapes one end of the reality in transition for our newest veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan is different than the terrain of Vietnam in the 1960s or Korea in the 1950s or Europe and the Pacific in the 1940s.
Maybe hostility is a very specific experience. When someone you don’t know is trying to kill you and everyone wearing the same uniform around you, it might make every feature of what’s around you indelible. And another person’s danger is never going to be the same as the danger you’ve grappled with.
I can still remember one of the last of our local World War I veterans at National Cemetery on a Memorial Day a while back.
I spotted his VFW cap in the crowd of those seated in wooden folding chairs almost but not quite within the shade of one of the large trees within the brick walls.
Approaching him from behind, he turned a bit stiffly for what I thought would be a meaningful but probably brief exchange. His family was already indicating not to keep him too long. It had already been a long day and they were clearly conserving his energy and aware of just how emotional this could be for him.
At first he talked about what the day and place in the here and now meant. But in mid sentence, he closed his eyes and rather suddenly began describing what he was seeing — he was guiding a boat through a harbor filled with the wreckage of ships and bodies. He recalled the cold wind, the colder water, the light on the water and on the boat rails rising from the water – even the rough cautions of a superior officer telling him to keep his mind on a path for the boat not what was in the water.
For a minute or two, not only was he on the boat but so was I and everyone able to hear his worn, brittle voice. It was one of those compelling moments without any warning or context.
Those vivid memories were still capable of surfacing in the still waters of a long life near its end. Just as suddenly the waters were again calm, his eyes opened to see us in the present and his voice became less urgent.
It is little wonder that those memories when still fresh can collide with a return to a past reality. And there can be uncertainty about which is real or if either is real.
To be sure, most veterans weather this with transition with few problems.
And the story of the civil rights movement must include veterans returning from World War II with a determination that they would shape a new reality testing the ideal they had fought for that America itself had not yet fully realized.
For those caught inbetween the realities of war and peace and their coexistence in different places at the same time, we should by now have a better way to help where we can when they return for a homecoming and find themselves strangers.
A new homecoming is almost upon us.