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Confetti, Cheers and Tears For Vietnam Vets

May 8, 1985

NEW YORK (AP) _ Carried along by the cheers of a million onlookers and drowned in a sea of confetti, about 25,000 Vietnam veterans, most in combat fatigues, marched through a tumultuous ticker-tape homecoming from a war that ended a decade ago.

Signs lining the route that wound across the Brooklyn Bridge and through Wall Street on Tuesday summed up the crowd’s feelings: ″We should have said it sooner - we’re proud of you,″ said one. ″Thanks, so much,″ said another.

Later Tuesday, about 4,000 veterans capped the festivities with a party at the aircraft carrier Intrepid, permanently docked in the Hudson River.

″This was like a college reunion, only not as romantic,″ said Air Force veteran Ron Naismith as his comrades ate hot dogs, drank beer and listened to pop music of the Vietnam era.

Leaning from office windows, standing on fences and perching precariously on cars and trucks, throngs cheered and waved American flags as group after group of veterans from across the nation passed by.

″It’s long overdue,″ said George Alvarado, 29, a former Marine from Brooklyn. ″We took a big loss and never got any recognition.″

Police estimated the crowd at 1 million, although some stretches of the route through Brooklyn and into Manhattan were thinly populated.

Yet even when sparse, the crowd’s enthusiasm welled up as the veterans, led by retired Gen. William Westmoreland and 26 Medal of Honor recipients, strolled by or marched past in cadence. Although most vets wore fatigues, some appeared with neat rows of ribbons and medals pinned to business suits.

″It was really a thrill,″ Westmoreland, who headed American forces in Vietnam, said afterward.

Mayor Edward Koch pushed the wheelchair of Assemblyman John Behan, who lost his legs 20 years ago in Vietnam.

″It was a lousy war, but a helluva parade,″ Behan said. ″The enthusiasm of the people was nice to see. They meant it when they said, ’Welcome home.‴

Spectators gave some of their loudest applause to a small group of women marching behind a yellow banner that said: ″Women who served in Vietnam.″

″It’s wonderful. It’s really beautiful. I’m here with all my sisters,″ said Sharon Vennel, 33, of Haddonfield, N.J., who spent a year in Vietnam as an Army decoder.

But for some, the experience was not entirely a happy one.

Angel Irlanda, a radio operator who served in Vietnam from 1967-69, shed tears for the comrades he left behind. ″I’m happy in my heart for myself and all my buddies here today but sad about the many left behind. The sons and husbands who died.″

Walking with a cane and waving both the American flag and the flag of his native Puerto Rico, Irlanda repeated over and over, tears glistening in his eyes, as he marched: ″Thank you, America, thank you.″

Some of the veterans at the parade expressed bitterness that the recognition had come so late.

Jerry White, 35, of Manhattan, a former Marine who said he served in Vietnam for ″13 months, 23 days and 6 hours,″ did not march, even though he was wearing a uniform adorned with sharpshooter and pistol medals. He said he came out of respect for those who died.

″I don’t consider this a thank you, and it’s not a parade. It’s just a mob, it’s more like a political convention or something. Ten years is too late for anything,″ he said.

″We came home and we had to pin on our own medals,″ said Julio Rivera of the Bronx, who was wounded several times during the war. ″The people who greeted us were waving North Vietnam flags.

″A lot of us are in jails. ... A lot of us are drug addicts, but that’s ’cause they treated us like we were nothing. This is 10 years late, but it opened up my heart that people know a little bit what we went through.″

The parade was organized by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Commission, which also is conducting a program to obtain jobs and job training for out of work veterans.