I was mesmerized as I rode down Fifth Avenue in New York City. I was honored to ride on the City University of New York (CUNY) float during the annual Veterans' Day parade. I was simply overwhelmed by the outpouring of appreciation by thousands of Americans toward veterans who have put their lives on the line for world freedom. In The Disabled Veteran's Story, I spoke of society's transformation. During the early to mid-1970s, the country's disfavor toward Vietnam veterans was palpable. We were spit upon and called baby killers. Today's veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are thanked for their service. This is a true testament to our changing awareness and increased appreciation of the lives of our veterans. I traveled an emotional journey throughout the parade looking into the eyes of all the grateful Americans.
My cup was overflowing with joy for the privileged moment among cheering crowds. The love and appreciation for my chosen career as a military member was greatly appreciated. Our job is to protect the interests of this nation and for Americans to acknowledge this act during the parade is an experience that will live in my heart forever.
In the week before the parade, I spoke at the Tampa Bay Florida Retired Educators' Association. My purpose was to express my appreciation for the educators and their own unconditional devotion to service. I reminded them that the veterans who stood guard for our freedom stand on their shoulders. They gave our veterans the skill set and the ability to apply those skills as a reasonable person. The veteran community is truly grateful. The Tampa Bay community played an intricate role during many American battles with two major commands at the Air Force Base in Tampa.
After my speech one educator came up to me. He said he had an adult daughter with special needs. He had never thought to seek VA benefits because he did not want government intervention. Then I shared stories about a similar family situation from my book and he is now seeking benefits on her behalf.
Examples of how veterans' stories change lives are all around us. The next day during my flight from Tampa to Newark, I began a conversation with the woman sitting next to me. I explained I was heading to New York to speak at the Brooklyn College Veterans' Day luncheon, where I would discuss my book. She asked how she could buy a copy and she ended up buying one right out of my carry-on bag. As she read the stories, she started to get very emotional.
"Miguel, this story is just like my father's!"
She explained that she was on her way to see him and that he had only two weeks to live. She continued to explain his story. He had been stationed in Korea and assigned to the 2nd and 7th Infantry Division defending the Demilitarized Zone. The VA categorically denied him benefits claiming he was not in Vietnam and not exposed to "Agent Orange". She said she grew up with her father telling her stories about watching the North Koreans while they were watching them at the DMZ fence for two- to three-hour periods. She said he was not aware of the use of Agent Orange to control the growth of the two-mile terrain between them. For years, he had attempted to get benefits and gave up because he felt others were in greater need.
As happens all too frequently with our veterans, he was now fighting for his benefits while he was fighting for his life. He first requested the benefits from the VA but was denied because his records were burned in a fire at the National Records Center in St. Louis in 1973. She said he did not understand how the VA could be so irresponsible.
She then explained her father was battling prostate cancer and it had traveled to his bones and pancreas. "It is sad because as a child my dad worked hard so my siblings and I could have the things he was deprived of as a child."
This Thanksgiving I continue to be thankful for the Americans and humbly appreciate their willingness to share true emotions and stories that move me deeply. I am greatly appreciative to finally experience "closure" after 43 years of shame for my tour in Vietnam.
"America Welcomed Me Home!"