Spectators young and old lined the street for Liberty County’s annual Veterans Day parade swung down South Main Street in Hinesville.
Bands from both Bradwell Institute and Liberty County High School and the 3rd Infantry Division marched past, playing patriotic music.
The parade included JROTC cadets on foot and a dignitary or two on wheels.
But the highlight was easily the veterans themselves, who walked or rolled past in everything from a restored World War II-era jeep to sports bikes so loud at least one kid ran for cover and had to be comforted by a Hinesville Police Department officer.
And then it was over, but not before the parade hopefully did what organizers intended it to do.
"This is to show veterans that we care for them," said Dennis Fitzgerald, commander of the parade’s sponsor this year, the East Liberty County American Legion Post 321. "It’s also to show the young troops serving now that veterans of the past are there for them and their families."
Fitzgerald, who wore a vest bedecked with everything from combat jump wings and the combat infantry badge to ribbons earned during tours of combat duty in Vietnam and Desert Storm, said such parades also aim to spread a message of duty and patriotism.
"A veteran is a veteran, and we’re here to take care of veterans" he said. "But we’re also here to help the younger generation grow and learn about this great country."
Yet such parades weren’t always the case. That’s why Bertha Windom said she attended Friday’s parade. Her brothers, Johnnie Gaulden and the late Ernest Gaulden, both served in Vietnam. So did a "special friend," Joseph Blocker.
They didn’t come home to applause and waving flags, and there were few parades for soldiers after that long ago war. Windom said seeing Vietnam veterans involved in parades now is healing for soldiers.
Maybe they’re healing for those who love veterans, as well.
"These parades are important because so many veterans did not get the treatment they deserved when they came home," she said. "Hopefully these parades will give them a better feeling about themselves. So many suffered so much from that war, and still suffered after coming home."
Former Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas knows that score. A retired Green Beret who also served with the Army Rangers and 82nd Airborne Division, Thomas spent two tours in Vietnam.
He said parades such as the one that marched past he and others Friday do matter, both for those serving now who’ll one day be veterans and those no longer on active duty.
"It’s critically important to me to see these guys who serve and those who served get recognized for what they do, the commitment they have to have and the time they spend away from their families, the overall care and safety they provide to us. It’s important to recognize that once or twice a year, or more," Thomas said.
He, too, knew soldiers who came home from Vietnam scarred. He served with them.
"There are friends of mine who had severe mental problems when they came home. They didn’t like to be around people, and they didn’t want to discuss things or talk about what caused them to be that way," Thomas said, after the last of the parade had made its way past for another year.
Then finished his thought.
"It’s just a parade, but it means a lot," Thomas said.
Earlier Friday, the Hinesville VFW saluted veterans at the group’s post on Highway 196. There, Fort Stewart garrison commander Col. Townley Hedrick summed up the day nicely before a crowd of veterans and family members from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War and Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I like to think of it as a celebration of being awesome," Hedrick said, as he looked out into a crowd of veterans and their family members. "Being a part of the best team you’ll ever be a part of, the best team in the world."
Hedrick encouraged veterans to continue serving and "keep making footsteps for us to follow in with what you do now … with all you do now to make Hinesville and Fort Stewart a good place to live," he said, then urged them to "have a happy Veterans Day, and celebrate being awesome. High five your buddies, pop the top on a few cold beers, or coke, or gallon of cold milk or whatever you choose, and let’s have a great day of celebrating the veterans of this country."
The VFW’s observance, complete with a bell tolling 11 times at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of the year to commemorate the end of World War I in 1918, was "eemceed" by retired Sgt. Maj. Adna Chaffee IV, a decorated Vietnam veteran and descendant of two Army generals. It included the traditional laying of wreaths at war memorials at the VFW and a free meal for those who attended.
Among those at the ceremony was retired Maj. Luis Carreras, a former Army pilot who did two tours in Vietnam and is now an ambassador for the U.S. Army reserve. He also volunteers with a number of groups, including Honor Flight, which takes aging and terminally ill veterans to Washington, D.C. to see monuments dedicated to them.
All the day’s ceremony matters, he said.
"This is about remembrance, it’s important," Carreras said. "We remember those who have gone before us and are thinking about those that go in the future. I see a link between the past, present and future. Hopefully, someday we don’t have to have a military because it’s a waste of time when you stop and think about it, but until the world is safe, until all people can walk around freely without worrying about being oppressed, then we’ll have to serve, and we’ll have to have a military."