I used to cry because I was bitter, alone and angry. On Veterans Day this year, I was crying because I am proud and not alone. Riding the bus with 46 other Veterans from the VA Hospital in New Jersey, I took the time to reflect. I did my tour in Vietnam not because I am brave or a hero but because I believe in honoring God, Country and Family. I was scared, I will admit it, and how can you not be when the sounds of war surround you? How you can you not be scared when you know that you can die like you have seen others die? I came home from the war proud that I survived, proud that I helped save democracy and proud to be an American. That feeling didn’t last for long. I was harassed, spit upon, treated like I did something wrong and I lived with feelings of shame and feeling like I was bad.
That all changed thanks to the PTSD unit at the Lyons VA hospital. I learned how to deal with my fears and thoughts. I learned that I was not a bad person. I learned that I was not alone.
On November 11, 2010, it was a lesson well learned. I had the honor of accompanying Veterans from the PTSD Unit at Lyons, LZ Hope, a peer support group at East Orange and Lyons Combat Support United, to the New York City Veterans Day Parade. We took a bus up and the staff on the bus made sure to greet us with “Good Morning – Thank you for your service” and always with a smile. I learned that some of the staff didn’t even get paid for the day—they took the time on their own to ensure that we had support. They also told us some of the things to expect, like by the red carpet area there might be helicopters going overhead and that we would be safe, to take deep breathes and know that it might happen. One of the staff members, though a Veteran herself said that she would be running the sidelines and that if anyone wanted to drop out to look for her but to rest assured, we would be able to hear her (and boy did we ever hear her. She was loud and proud). We were reassured that if we didn’t want to march, that we could walk or take the bus to the end of the parade route and watch it from there.
We started lining up on 28th Street and Fifth Avenue. The people were overwhelming, but we were greeted by the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 779. We were going to march with them. They made an impressive site. They were dressed in black with white flag holders and the flags took up half a city block. With our guys, it took almost two city blocks!
We spent a lot of time waiting and people watching. It didn’t hurt that we were waiting with the USO Float and listening to them practice singing. We saw the Mayor of New York City and the Governor of the State of New York.
Finally it was time for us to step off. I kept my eyes on the younger guys from Iraq/Afghanistan. They reminded me of when I first did the parade with the PTSD unit over four years ago. The first time I thought it was corny, but I did it because it was expected but I kept my head down. I was determined not to see anyone make fun of me but you get lost in listening to the crowds cheering “Thank You” and waving flags and holding up homemade signs saying because of us they were free. By the time you got to the review stand in front of the New York Library, you feel differently—you feel like you are a hero and that it is a good thing.
The first year I went, I was impressed that the Cardinal came out of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and shook hands and gave blessings to us. This year, our entire group broke ranks and stepped over to the Cardinal and got a blessing. It was truly moving. We neared the end of the parade and I could hear the Veterans start to talk to each other saying how cool it was and talking about the signs. The younger Veterans all seemed to feel that it was a great day and they felt proud of their service. And they felt proud that they did some good for the country. One of the Veterans who just returned from Afghanistan said that he was anxious because being in the parade reminded him of being in convoys and that the people taking pictures with their cell phones made him nervous because cell phones were used to detonate bombs on the road. He said that he wanted to march and he just listened to the staff member who was running the sidelines and yelling and cheering and knew that he would be safe.
For me, an old Marine, I always feel clean at the end of the parade. It is hard to explain but after years of hiding my PTSD with alcohol and drugs and isolating, the parade always reminds me that I’m proud to be an American.
Today I cry because I am proud of who I am and thankful for the staff at the VA in New Jersey and Chapter 779. I am not alone.
Willie Rosenberg served in the United States Marine Corps with the Headquarters Battalion, 1st Marine Division in Vietnam in 1969/1970. He is also the proud father of a U.S. Marine who served in Iraq. Mr. Rosenberg volunteers as a team leader in the Lyons House, a drop in center for Veterans with a mental health diagnosis at the Lyons Campus of the VA New Jersey Health Care System.