By Larry Austin
Island Dispatch Editor
Island service men and women received a heroes welcome Friday during the second annual Veterans Parade at Connor Middle School and Grand Island High School.
For some Vietnam veterans, it was the welcome home they waited 50 years to hear.
As veterans paraded through the halls of the Ransom Road school complex, students, faculty and staff, many waving American flags and holding hand-made signs of support, applauded the veterans.
"I thought it was outstanding," said Dan McMahon, the quartermaster of the New York Veterans of Foreign Wars and commander for Pfc. Charles N. DeGlopper VFW Post No. 9249. "When Vietnam veterans were coming home 50 years ago, we didn't get this."
"It's a very, very nice tribute to the veterans, not only the Vietnam veterans, but to everybody coming home today to show the gratitude for the service. You hear too much about the negativity of the service, and this is a fitting tribute to all the veterans."
Students, and even some of the parents of high school students, are too young to remember what it was like 50 years ago when service personnel returned from Vietnam.
"The young people did not appreciate the military," said McMahon of students in the 1960s and 1970s. "They thought that we shouldn't be at war. We shouldn't be any place. We should be growing up going to school. And today they showed respect and honored the veterans here, and I think that's a fitting tribute to the generation of students today."
Vietnam veteran Alan Lee said, "I liked it. I really did. It seems that this school is different from most schools. I don't think there's this kind of appreciation at most schools. I noticed last week, when we were in the STEM wing, the branch flags up on the wall. I was kind of surprised."
McMahon said when the first units that fought in Vietnam came back stateside, the president thought it would be a good idea to have a parade down the main drag at Fort Lewis, Washington.
"They paraded through the city streets and everybody that was there did everything but cheer them," McMahon recalled. "They spit on them. They threw stuff on them. They booed them. They jeered them."
At Grand Island, McMahon said, "You didn't see any of that today. It's an honor to come to the school and be appreciated by the students and the faculty and the Board of Education."
The parade at VCMS was preceded by a tribute over the public address system that set the tone for the entire event: "In a few minutes Veronica Connor Middle School and Grand Island High School will be honoring the men and women who have shaped our country's values in a special way. We're here today to honor our heroes, remember their achievements, their courage, their dedication, and to say thank you for their sacrifices. Thinking of the heroes who join us in this group today and those who are here only in spirit, a person can't help but feel awed by the enormity of what we encounter. We stand in the midst of patriots. ... The service members we honor today came from all walks of life, but they shared several fundamental qualities. They possess courage, pride, determination, selflessness, dedication to duty and integrity, all the qualities needed to serve a cause larger than oneself. We extend our gratitude to you and your family for the commitment and sacrifice they have made on our behalf. We also must never forget those who have sacrificed their life for the cause of freedom."
Two great-grandchildren and one grandchild of John Corrao III, an Air Force veteran of the Korean War, escorted the 88-year-old through the hallways as fellow students.
"I felt like getting up and shaking hands with every one of them," Corrao said of the students who cheered for him and the other veterans. "The kids were great and made me feel good." He said he was especially touched by the enthusiasm and "their smiles as we were going by."
Corrao's great-granddaughter Gianna Karnath, a seventh-grader at VCMS, said the parade is a vital event for her school.
"I thought it was very important that they had it, because we should always respect the veterans who served our world," Karnath said. "And I think it made most of the veterans very happy because (the students) were all clapping for them and thanking them."
"I'm glad I got to walk with him today," Karnath of sharing the parade with her great-grandpa.
The parade also offered the teachable moment for students, said VCMS Principal John Fitzpatrick.
"We have so many freedoms in our country our kids take for granted. And I think it's very important to remind them that there were certain sacrifices that needed to be made in order to have the ability to be free," Fitzpatrick said.
"How can you describe the veteran?" Fitzpatrick said. "The first word you would use is sacrifice, of course, because they are willing to do whatever it takes to preserve our freedoms in our country. And I think it's important that students see those adjectives in action, so to speak. They get to see commitment in a real-life person, discipline in a real-life person, the dedication in a real-life person.
"We had fathers, grandfathers, principals who marched in the parade today. Teachers, as well. So, the word 'veteran' has so many adjectives that we can use to describe who they are, but we also see them in real life."