Sixty-three clubs, schools, troops and religious organizations gathered at assembly points throughout Valley Stream on an overcast Monday as they prepared to march in the 98th annual parade honoring those who have lost their lives in the U.S. armed forces.
Veteran Frank Torres was ready for the marchers at the finish line with water and tortilla chips. Torres, who served in the New York National Guard from 1968 to 1974, is still surprised at how quickly he found himself in the military.
“I graduated from college in June ’68,” he said. “Two weeks later, I got a letter telling me where to go [for induction.] Two weeks!” Torres was working in a bank at the time, and a chance encounter made him join the Guard. “A woman came into the bank and we got to talking,” he recounted. “I said something about not being here much longer because I’d been called up. She said she knew someone who might be able to help me get into the National Guard.” Torres was skeptical, he said, but the woman was as good as her word. The “someone” she knew was a lieutenant colonel in the Guard. “Call him,” she said. Torres did.
In 1968, the Vietnam War was at its height, with a half-million U.S. service personnel stationed throughout South Vietnam. The armed forces depended on the draft, and nearly every young man spent some time in the service.
Tom Leonard, who was also at the parade, remembers the first engagement of that war in 1965. Leonard was assigned to the first battalion of the Seventh Air Cavalry Regiment under the command of Lt. Col. (later Lt. Gen.) Hal Moore. “We were in the la Drang Valley,” Leonard said. The first battalion arrived on Nov. 14 at Landing Zone X-Ray. A strong force of North Vietnamese regulars, under the command of Sr. Col. Nguyen Huu An, was waiting in tunnels and the bush. Nguyen was a veteran of the war for independence against France.
The fighting at LZ X-Ray lasted two days before Leonard’s battalion was ordered to withdraw. Casualties had been relatively light, Leonard recalled, but he added that the other battalion taking part in the fighting was not as fortunate. “Lt. Col. [Robert] McDade was at LZ Albany. His unit had 150 killed.” It was the deadliest single day for U.S. forces in the entire war. The difference between Moore’s and McDade’s units was that “Moore had air support,” Leonard said. “McDade didn’t.”
Parade Chairman Marty Kielawa, a past commander of American Legion Andrew Fatscher Post 854, served in the same battalion as Leonard, from 1970 to 1971. At the time, U.S. forces were engaged in cross-border incursions into Cambodia in the hope of disrupting supplies coming into South Vietnam. “We never really knew which side of the border we were on,” Kielawa said. “The map said we were on the right side,” he added slyly.
He reflected on some of the differences between Vietnam and earlier wars, where soldiers could come off the line for rest and relaxation. In Vietnam, “there wasn’t anywhere you could go that was really in the rear,” Kielawa said. “Whether you were in the field or in camp,” no place could be considered safe. “You had to leave the country.”
Walter Loheide served in yet another crisis period in American history. Loheide was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division from 1960 to 1962. It was a time of maximum tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. In April 1961, U.S.-sponsored forces had attempted to overthrow Soviet ally Fidel Castro in Cuba and failed badly. That August, the East German government, operating at the behest of the Soviet Union, closed the border between East and West Germany and erected the notorious Berlin Wall. It would stand until 1989.
Loheide’s division was ordered to prepare for an airborne assault on the island of Cuba. “Our supplies were loaded on heavy-drop platforms,” he said, referring to the platforms to which trucks, artillery pieces and heavy supplies were attached before loading onto transport aircraft to be dropped on the landing zone. “Our personal items were all tagged to ship” in the event of injury or death. “We were confined to barracks and were ready to deploy within a few hours.” The unit was waiting only for a green light from the White House, he said. It never came.
Loheide remembered his 28 training jumps, and in 2010, after nearly 50 years, including 36 years as a member of the NYPD, he decided to try a civilian jump. “It was completely different,” he said. In the airborne, “you jump at about 1,000 or 1,500 feet.” For his civilian jump, he went out the door at 13,500 feet. “I loved it,” he said, but added that he will not repeat the experience.
These veterans were all draftees at a time when that was the common experience of most American young men. With the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the military began a transition to an all-volunteer force. Navy veteran Kevin Hill
was one who enlisted, serving from 1984 to 2014.
“I was 17,” he said. Hill remembered the recruiting posters that graced the outside of the post offices of the day. “Join the Navy and see the world,” they proclaimed. Hill did. “I’ve been everywhere,” he said. That included tours in Iraq as a member of the military police and a stint in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as a master-at-arms. He retired as a first-class petty officer.
Hill encouraged returning veterans to seek out other vets for help in readjusting to civilian life and in getting the benefits they have earned through their service. “The [American] Legion can really help veterans,” he said. Veterans Administration programs and benefits can be difficult to negotiate, he said. “The older guys have already been there, and they can give you advice.” Hill pointed out that he is finishing up his master’s degree in homeland security and criminal justice at St. John’s University and hopes to continue through to his doctorate. “It’s free,” he said — paid for as part of his veteran’s benefits.
Hill couldn’t help contrasting the current climate with an earlier period. “Soldiers and sailors came home from Vietnam and got spit on,” he said. He was pleased people were more inclined to honor current returning veterans, but dismayed at the low level of material and medical support they receive for sometimes significant traumatic injuries. “Men and women come back and can’t get the help they need,” he said.
State Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages of Valley Stream approached Hill as he spoke. Stretching out her hand to him, she said simply, “Thank you for your service.”