By Jim Romaine
When I accepted the Coast Guard invitation to march (with them) in this year’s Veterans Day Parade in New York City, I did not expect to stir memories going back forty five years. I wanted to march to honor all veterans past and present and thought this year to be timely because it marks the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor and the 50th anniversary of our entry into Vietnam.
In my Service Dress Blue Uniform and combination hat I had just come out of Penn Station and was waiting to cross Seventh Avenue to go down to our muster location on 26th St, between Broadway and Fifth Ave. Suddenly, I felt a tug on my left sleeve, I turned and looked down into the sincere face of a seven or eight year old boy who said to me “thank you for your service, Sir”! Why am I so touched by this? Was this the same face from 1967 outside JFK, seeing me arriving home in my Air Force dress blues, wearing ribbons and aircrew wings, his young face contorted in anger then spitting at me while screaming “Baby Killer!”? I’m not sure there was ever a time in the history of the United States of America when the general populace, the media and our civil leaders thought so poorly of our military personnel and treated them so shabbily during and after their service in the Vietnam era. Times change and thankfully so do people and their perceptions.
At our muster site over one hundred Coast Guard officers and enlisted personnel were casually mingling at 1130hrs. CDR Pierro interrupted the scene by calling for all officers and auxiliary to come to the front, everyone else to fall in behind, and now form rows of eight across. After being called to attention taller people were asked to move forward in their respective columns, an order of “left face” allowed us to have the taller people once again move forward. “Right face!” now brought us to our final marching positions. Viewed from above our marching unit would have the tallest personnel in the upper left quadrant and the shortest personnel in the lower right.
Now we were formed up and ready to march, but WAIT! Some things never change in the military and “hurry up and wait!” was the order of the day and would still apply. We would not step off in the parade until 1415 hrs. but I would have a great couple of hours meeting and learning about these active duty Coast Guardsmen. What fine individuals! Everyone was bright eyed, confident, professional, proud and purposeful. Morale was high! How different the airmen I served with in the mid and late 60’s. There was a lack of trust in our government and resentment for the way we were treated by our fellow citizens. Moods were often dark but duty was always done, even when it seemed no one back home cared.
But now I’m surrounded and accepted by this great group of people in the Coast Guard and being appreciated for my past accomplishments and current contributions. Why am I feeling so good? Is an old emotional wound finally healing?
Walking around the area while waiting our turn to march, I paused to watch other military units step off into the parade. A Vietnam era Marine Sergeant in his dress uniform adorned with many medals came to attention and saluted me. I quickly came to attention returned his salute and then dropped my right hand to shake his and thank him for his service. We shared our respective stories and parted with mutual respect and admiration for one another. It was a warm encounter on this windy and chilly November day and more healing for me.
“FORWARD MARCH!” CDR Pierro ordered. One hundred and twenty left legs stepped forward, and one hundred and twenty left heels hit the tarmac in unison, our Coast Guard Marching Unit was now in the parade. We were led by the Coast Guard Honor Guard and followed by the Coast Guard Academy Band and Cheerleaders. Taking up the rear a CG truck pulled a USCG 25’ RBS (fast boat w/twin Honda 250’s) on a trailer. Almost immediately, the band struck up “Semper Paratus” and our group pride soared! Shouts of “Hooray! Coast Guard!”, “Go Coast Guard!” could be heard above the music. The crowds were five deep and lined both sides of Fifth Ave. They welcomed us with loud clapping and cheers. Some history buff even yelled “it’s the original American Revenue and Cutter Service”!
As we marched uptown from Madison Square Park, we passed the Empire State Building, and at the Reviewing Stand at 41st St. (we performed an “eyes left” here) and saw high ranking officers return our salute. Gen. Petraeus, the new Director of the CIA was there too. Each step I took along the way filled me with awe. I took in all the gratitude, appreciation and warmth of the gathered throngs. On this day somewhere deep inside me, I was twenty four years old again and I was finally coming home. It felt great!
After passing St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Rockefeller Center, we turned left on 52nd St. and were ordered to break formation and be dismissed. We were left to exchange contact information and say farewell to new friends, one journey ending new ones to look forward to.
So I offer great thanks to the Coast Guard and the Auxiliary for giving me the opportunity to participate in this exhilarating, humbling and healing experience.
At the 34th St. entrance to Penn Station looking to catch a train home, someone called out to me “Hey Admiral, how ya doin’”? Laughing out loud I answered “Just great man! Just GREAT”!