Vietnam War veterans were shunned and slandered after returning home from the killing fields, but Americans can thank them for making our communities red, white, and blue, claims the incoming president of the United War Veterans Council — the folks behind the New York City Veterans Day Parade, known famously as “America’s Parade.”
“It’s because of their efforts that our culture has matured and learned valuable lessons about honoring service,” says Dan McSweeney, a former active-duty and reserve marine, and founder of InterSect, a communications and management consulting firm.
His predecessor, who served in Vietnam, experienced the unhappy homecoming, complete with anti-war demonstrations and a Bronx cheer from traditional veterans organizations.
“The Department of Veterans Affairs gave us very poor service,” says Vince McGowan. “They gave better service to veterans of World Wars I and II and Korea.”
It didn’t help that the United War Veterans Council — a group soldiering on since the War of 1812 — had dwindled to a shell of its former self. McGowan and his comrades-in-arms, Harvey Bagg and Joe Graham, believed other soldiers returning from the frontlines deserved better, and reconstituted the organization in the mid-1980s, laying the groundwork for veterans issues to receive appropriate attention and support in the public and private sectors. They helped to create a Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program and established the Vietnam Veterans of America, while advocating for veterans at City Hall, with McGowan as chairperson of the Veterans Advisory Board. They also organized and funded their own tributes.
“We threw ourselves our own welcome-home parades, and built our own memorials in the city and Washington before the World War II and Korean War memorials were completed,” says McGowan, who hired Pat Gualtieri, a Vietnam vet and event producer who died in July, to invigorate the city’s dog-eared Veterans Day Parade for the new millennium, inviting for the first time ever families of soldiers killed and wounded in action.
McGowan will remain an emeritus member of the council after retiring in the fall, when McSweeney assumes the helm.
The new leader has big plans to honor armed service in the 21st century, while refocusing and restructuring the council in time for the 2019 centennial commemoration of Armistice Day celebrating the end of World War I.
“We need to make sure our programming and priorities reflect the needs, desires, and sensibilities of a new generation of former service members,” says the two-tour Iraq vet. “The opportunities in front of us are vast and exciting.”
McSweeney wants a bigger and better “America’s Parade,” an expanded recycling program serving veterans directly through job opportunities, a greater online presence with podcasts and web-based townhall-type meetings, and new partnerships with the city’s Veterans Business Hub.
“Like our new veterans, our council will become a more savvy and connected organization, building upon the great successes of our predecessors,” he says.