The parade route winding through Miller Park’s main lot Thursday afternoon felt almost like a high school reunion, with veterans from every branch of military service rolling down car windows to clap each other on the back, greeting one another like long-lost friends.
In lieu of its normal indoor private luncheon, Lynchburg Parks and Recreation hosted its 22nd annual Veterans Appreciation Luncheon outside in Miller Park, the lot fringed with booths, bands and flags, allowing veterans to drive through, pick up their meals and get recognition from cheering onlookers.
Maggie Mace, the recreation services manager, described it as a “reverse parade,” one where the crowd drives through and the “floats” are stationary. She said event organizers expected to serve about 200 veterans, each receiving a free hot meal with standard, southern fare — like barbecue sandwiches, fried chicken and slaw.
Megan Heatwole, community recreation supervisor, said it was exciting to open up what was normally a closed event to the community.
“We’re serving our ultimate mission, which is feeding veterans and really celebrating them,” she said.
The event was bolstered by live music from the Lynchburg Christian Academy marching band and the 29th Infantry Division Band.
David Stokes, president of the Lynchburg chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, said it meant the world to him to see parks and recreation adapt the program to suit the community’s current needs.
Like so many of the veterans manning booths, he wasn’t there to represent just one group but rather a cross-section of area veteran organizations, a close-knit network that works to provide support and resources for local veterans.
Beside him, Freddie Pleasant was representing American Legion Post 16. A Vietnam War and Gulf War Navy veteran, he pointed to Stokes and Otto Davis on either side of him.
“I’m Navy, these two guys are Army, but even so, this is our family,” he said. “This means a whole lot to me from a patriotic standpoint, but also from a personal standpoint, because I’m aligning with my brothers in arms. This is a fellowship that we hold close and dear to us.”
After he retired, Stokes said, he was determined to make every Memorial Day and Veterans Day count. He spends most Fridays at Monument Terrace with other veterans in the weekly “support the troops” rally.
“It was not very popular coming back from Vietnam. You were made ashamed to have a uniform on. You either took it off and threw it away or put it in the closet, or you closed the door; nobody cared anything about it,” Stokes said. “Now, Lynchburg is very veteran-friendly, I’m proud to say.”
Ian Molineaux, who was picking up a hot lunch with his wife, Dottie, echoed a similar sentiment. As a Vietnam veteran, he said after the war he and other vets didn’t feel very appreciated, but events like these make him feel good.
He served in the Navy for 20 years and met Dottie in 1974 while they were both serving in Vietnam; she was an Air Force flight nurse.
“It really is a sweet thing that the city of Lynchburg does for us,” Dottie Molineaux said. “The way that they have been able to accommodate for the pandemic is just amazing. The fact that they coordinated all this, the food, the booths, the drive-thru — they’ve thought of everything.”
Frieda Mattox stood by the Military Order of the Purple Heart booth, waving tiny American flags with her granddaughter, who was one of several students from Desmond T. Doss Academy who had turned out to show support.
“My granddaughter was asking me about it,” Mattox said. “She says, ‘What does all this mean?’ And I was telling her about the men and women that defend our country on a day-in, day-out basis, and we don’t see it. Unless it hits your front porch, people don’t understand it.”
Mattox spoke from experience. Her son was deployed to Afghanistan in 2008, and after he was injured, it was an uphill battle of recovery. After six months in the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, he came home, but Mattox has never forgotten the fear she felt in the aftermath.
She’s grateful that events like this one provide support and education.
“I’m sure he fights demons all the time,” Mattox said of her son. “People just don’t realize what these men and women go through.”
Vietnam Veteran Steve Bozeman agreed it was heartwarming to see such an event. He spent four years in the U.S. Marine Corps as a combat door gunner on a helicopter. He left service with two Purple Hearts and a few other awards and “got on with my life.”
“I’m very thankful I did that, served my country,” Bozeman said. “Life moves on, and here you are at age 74, still thinking you’re 19 years old as a young Marine.”
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