On June 13, 1986, the Chicago Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home Parade became the largest parade of its kind in the history of America. Over 200,000 veterans and their families marched proudly down the streets of Chicago to the applause of over 300,000 spectators. It was an emotional and inspirational day designed to be a healing celebration. If you were there you will never forget it.
Back then, I was a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 154 Color Guard. This was going to be an exciting time for VN Vets and we wanted to go. We made reservations at a hotel, gathered our spouses, and headed to Chicago. The morning of the parade, there were wall-to-wall people everywhere you looked. As we carried modified M1 rifles, the city didn’t want us traveling on public transportation, so they arranged for the Police Department to transport us to Navy Pier in a paddy wagon. Once we found our place in line, we waited for quite some time before departing; the parade had actually started over an hour earlier and it took almost double that time before we stepped off.
When it was over and everyone gathered at Grant Park for speeches, socializing and concerts – the food and beer vendors worked hard without a break. The public supported us at the park, and I made new friends. I also recall never having to pay for food or beer after the parade; strangers always handed us hot dogs and beers during the night.
I’ve added some of my personal photos taken during the parade, and was also a guest featured on WGN TV for Veterans Day in 2015 to remember that day. Below is an excerpt of the program aired that night by Sarah Jindra:
“About a decade after the Vietnam War ended, cities across the country began hosting “Welcome Home” parades for Vietnam veterans. Some say these parades, including one in Chicago, are what finally made them feel like their service was appreciated. Sarah Jindra has their story.
While fighting in the trenches of Vietnam, many young Americans saw things they didn’t want to see and did things they didn’t want to do.
The song “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” by The Animals became their anthem. And they lived for the moment they got to get back on the plane and leave Vietnam.
“Oh my God, we survived. And when the plane took off, we all cheered. It was a big, big thing,” recalls Vietnam veteran, John Podlaski.
Podlaski is one of the lucky soldiers who made it out. He was finally able to take a deep breath and return to the country he served.
But he returned to protests and flag burning, aimed not just at the government for its involvement in the war, but at him too.
“It was a heck of an experience or account,” says Podlaski, “to see the tomatoes coming at you, raising their fists and they’re hollering at you. Everybody was kind of embarrassed. I don’t want to go out and show myself. To become a Vietnam vet, from that point on, it was kind of a secret. You kind of just took it in the closet and left it. You didn’t want anyone to know.”
Radio personality, Bob Leonard felt the same way when he came back from Vietnam.
“When I came home, people started spitting at me and calling me a baby killer,” says Leonard. “By about the 4th or 5th person who said baby killer and spit at me, I had had enough.”
Leonard grew out his hair and moved to Puerto Rico. For the next 16 years, he denied serving in Vietnam, even after moving back to the U.S. But that all changed in Chicago on June 13, 1986.
On that day, Leonard agreed to help host a “Welcome Home” parade for Vietnam veterans. Parade organizers in Chicago found out he was a Vietnam veteran and asked him to help host. He agreed and says that day changed his life.
“Everything changed,” says Leonard. “My whole mindset changed. From that point on, it was OK to be a veteran.”
While some veterans felt the parade was too little too late, 125,000 thought it was just what they needed to finally be thanked and to feel welcome home.
As Leonard hosted, Podaski marched in the parade. He later wrote a book about his experience in Vietnam to help others understand what they went through. Watching the parade broadcast today is still emotional.
“A lot of people didn’t go,” says Podlaski. “It was 15 years too late. ‘Don’t welcome me home today, because I don’t wanna hear it.’ But for me, I was thrilled to death.”
During the parade broadcast, President Reagan made a statement to those watching, acknowledging the long overdue welcome home. “Clearly the welcome home received by many of our brave men and women who served in Vietnam was less than they deserved. And that’s putting it mildly. Today, however, Americans are making up for that.”
The scars of war, emotional and physical, were on display that day. As was the stark reminder, that some Veterans never even got to choose whether to attend a parade.”
Prior to the parade – my color guard waiting at Navy Pier. I’m second from the left
Color guard outside the hotel the morning of the event. Because of our rifles, the police drove us to Navy Pier in a paddy wagon
VVA Chapter 154 color guard proudly marching in front of family and chapter members who carried a banner
Just beyond the pier and heading into the financial district
Same as above
Parade watchers were standing six deep in places along the route
Most people in the financial district worked that day and threw shredded paper out of the windows
The author and Bruce Crandall at the reception center for the 25th anniversary of the Chicago parade in 2011. I had a table to sign books at the event.
Here’s a two-part video (less than 1/2 hour in total) that offers previews of the almost four-hour parade. There are some versions on the internet that were filmed from start to finish. Check the Chicago Tribune site.
I venture to say that many veterans who participated in this 1986 parade are no longer with us today. God bless them and may they rest in peace.
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