Jan. 12, 1946, was a glorious day in New York City. The 13,000 soldiers that made up the 82nd Airborne Division marched their way up Fifth Avenue from Washington Avenue, cheered by thousands of people and endless streams of ticker tape along the way.
Attending were Gov. Thomas Dewey and Mayor William O’Dwyer. Also there was the city’s mayor during wartime, Fiorello LaGuardia, who by then had retired to his Fieldston estate.
World War II may have been one of the most difficult periods our country — our planet — ever slogged through. So this day was one many waited a long time for, and our soldiers earned a hero’s welcome.
Just a few decades later, however, the tone would be much different. Soldiers returning from Vietnam didn’t get massive parades, or even any ticker tape. Instead, they returned home to a country divided over the war, some looking to the men (and even some women) as the perfect scapegoat for their anger over the conflict.
Yet, these soldiers aren’t responsible for the decisions made in Washington. They’re trained to go where they’re told, don’t ask questions, and serve their country at all costs.
That’s what these soldiers did, with 58,220 of them giving that ultimate sacrifice under the flag of the United States of America.
For 20 years, soldiers battled the Viet Cong and other pro-communist forces — a conflict that didn’t end until Saigon fell on April 30, 1975. Movies, even memories from those brave men who served like Stephen Budihas, might give us a glimpse into how near impossible conditions were. But there’s no way we could ever know fully unless we were there ourselves.
Whether the war itself was justified or not, that doesn’t absolve us from remembering and honoring every single man and woman who literally put their lives on the line to serve their country.
Roger C. Brathwaite was one of those wearing the uniform, serving his country even as a conscientious objector. He and other soldiers from the Vietnam era deserve recognition with veterans from all other wars, and we all can be proud of Van Cortlandt Park’s Memorial Grove for finally doing just that.