Detroit —The people in the middle of the street Sunday would tell you they were not heroes. The people on the sidewalks disagreed.
On the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, the 13th annual Detroit Veterans Day Parade wound from Midtown to downtown and back, with a nice throng of well-wishers at the beginning and the usual sparse population along the rest of the route.
There were massive military vehicles, and there were tiny cars bearing fez-wearing Shriners. There were Junior ROTC corps, chanting as they marched crisply down Cass, across to Grand Circus Park and back north on Woodward.
There were bands and flags and a feisty-looking little harbor patrol boat from the Coast Guard, pulled on a trailer. But heroes?
Mike Kozlowski, 34, of Columbus Township did two tours of duty with the Army in Afghanistan and another in Iraq. A tear made its way down his cheek as a talented little girl sang “God Bless America” at the staging area just before the parade, and another tear followed the same path as a bugler played “Taps.”
“No,” he said, he wasnt a hero.
“I proudly served my country,” he said. “Its an honor.” And he left it at that.
Hed driven in with his next-door neighbor, Dale (Bugsy) Newsome, who will turn 68 on Thursday. Newsomes war was Vietnam, and his battles and his homecoming were far different from Kozlowskis.
A retired union crane operator, Newsome often wears a baseball cap that explains his outlook on his service.
“God, duty, country,” it says. Nothing on there about “hero.” But further along the route, former prom dates Frank and Luz Alcala of Allen Park were pleased to use the word.
Hes 49, shes 50, and theyve been married 32 years. They had planned to meet their three grown kids for brunch at the Hudson Cafe downtown, and with a 90-minute wait for a table, they ventured up Woodward to see why the street was blocked.
“Definitely heroes,” Luz said. “If it wasnt for them, God knows what would be going on out here.”
The parade has become something of a festival across 13 years, if not a magnet for spectators. At Cass Park, where it began and ended in blustery cold, there were booths for radio stations and vendors. A food truck called the Mean Weenie was nose-to-nose with an eight-wheeled Stryker armored personnel carrier.
State Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, was awarding 50th Commemoration lapel pins to Vietnam veterans. Detroit City Council member Gabe Leland was offering handshakes and thanks.
Leland, whos facing federal bribery charges, said he was trying to roll with the punches and stay strong. He noted the firm link between Detroit, the Arsenal of Democracy in World War II, and the military.
“They do whats asked of them, and they do it with integrity,” he said. “I do think of them as heroes.”
The parade roster included several aging veterans whose individual heroism was undeniable.
Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson, 96, of Southfield, a former Tuskegee Airman and POW, served as grand marshal — though he has described himself as simply a World War II “survivor,” rather than something extraordinary.
Lt. Col. Charles Kettles, 88, of Ypsilanti was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama for a selfless, odds-defying helicopter rescue during a battle in Vietnam.
Heroes, both. But for every use of that word by a civilian, there was a shrug from someone who once wore a uniform.
Randy Davis of Monroe was a Marine for 11 years. In Vietnam, he said, he had the advantage of being a non-smoker: he could trade his ration of cigarettes for chocolate bars.
Davis, 69, a retired truck driver, wore a leather jacket decorated with patches, some for the Corps and at least one suggesting what ISIS should do with itself. On the back were the colors of the Nam Knights motorcycle club.
“We just did what we had to do,” he said.
Sgt. Warner Threats, 63, was more concerned with horses Sunday than heroics.
Threats spent 24 years on active duty in the Army. Now he helps train the Junior ROTC squadron at Detroit Osborn High School, 176 strong.
He was minutes away from marching with them, and he shook his head as he noted their place in the lineup. “Were behind the horses again.”
ROTC is “all about the discipline and leadership,” he said. As for active duty?
“Servants,” he said. “Thats what we are,” to a cause and a country. Thanks and compliments are not required.
Along Woodward, in front of Central United Methodist, Avis Avery and her sister-in-law, Darice Spight, had brought folding chairs. There was no one near them except for a couple walking dogs.
Spights husband of 43 years had already come past with his American Legion post. She and Gregory Spight met and married shortly after he arrived home from Vietnam, and both retired from AT&T.
Now he volunteers with the Legion, helping veterans who havent adjusted to reentry as well as he did.
Still serving, she said.
Still a hero to her.