The holiday falls on a Sunday, and the federal observance is on Monday. It’s the first such day honoring the men and women who served in uniform since the last U.S. troops left Iraq in December 2011.
It’s also a chance to thank those who stormed the beaches during World War II — a population that is rapidly shrinking with most of those former troops now in their 80s and 90s.
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, a steady stream of visitors arrived Saturday morning as the names of the 58,000 people on the wall were being read over a loudspeaker.
Some visitors took pictures, others made rubbings of names, and some left mementos: a leather jacket, a flag made out of construction paper, pictures of young soldiers and even several snow globes with an American eagle inside.
Alfred A. Atwood, 65, of Chattanooga, Tenn., was visiting the wall for the first time.
“I’ve just never been able to do it,” Atwood said of visiting the memorial, which was completed in 1982.
Atwood, who later became a police detective, said he knows a number of people on the wall, but the one name he wanted to find Saturday was his friend Ronald L. Wright. The two had grown up together, and when Atwood decided to join the Marines at 18 there was no stopping Wright, Atwood said.
Wright died in 1968 when he stepped on a land mine, Atwood said, and Wright’s mother always blamed him for her son’s death. He’s never been able to bring himself to visit his friend’s grave, he said.
On Saturday, he found Wright’s name on panel 44E, row 60, and he ran his fingers over it, shaking his head.
“I’m still in the blocking stage. I want to go somewhere and sit down and think a minute,” he said after seeing Wright’s name. “All I can see when I was touching and reading his name was his mother’s face telling me I got her son killed.”
A few hundred people attended a Veterans Day parade Saturday in downtown Atlanta.
Roger Ware, 68, walked down the sidewalk wearing his old Air Force flight suit and a patch that read, “Viet Cong Hunting Club.” He was in the service nearly 24 years, including two tours in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972 as a crewman on a C-130 gunship. He said the military is more respected now than when he returned home from Vietnam. Ware said the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks probably changed how the country views its armed forces.
“It just wasn’t a good time and right now we’re kind of riding on the tails of the troops who served in the Middle East,” he said.
Farther down the road, veterans Ronald McLendon, 73, of Kennesaw, and Randy Bergman, 59, of Cartersville, were working as parade marshals. McLendon said when he returned from Vietnam, he was spit on by protesters in San Francisco. He was in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and was deployed to Vietnam from 1967 to 1968.
He described the parade as a chance to receive a public thank you.
“You’ve got to remember that today everyone in the military is strictly volunteer,” McLendon said. “So there’s a lot of guys getting out there, getting shot in Iraq and Afghanistan that volunteered to be in the military.”
Squads of high school ROTC students marched in uniforms, chanting as they went along the street.
Bergman said he would reluctantly support sending young soldiers to fight if it was necessary for national defense. He was unsure how and whether the U.S. should end its military involvement in Afghanistan.
“How many lives have we already put over there? And are we going to pull out and say, ‘We lost.’ I look back to Vietnam and see the same thing,” he said.