(AP) – Saturday marked the first of what will be three days of Veterans Day commemorations across the United States.
The holiday falls on a Sunday, and the federal observance is on Monday. It’s the first such day honoring the men and women who served in uniform since the last U.S. troops left Iraq in December 2011.
It’s also a chance to thank those who stormed the beaches during World War II _ a population that is rapidly shrinking with most of those former troops now in their 80s and 90s.
At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, a steady stream of visitors arrived Saturday morning as the names of the 58,000 people on the wall were being read over a loudspeaker.
Some visitors took pictures, others made rubbings of names, and some left mementos: a leather jacket, a flag made out of construction paper, pictures of young soldiers and even several snow globes with an American eagle inside.
Alfred A. Atwood, 65, of Chattanooga, Tenn., was visiting the wall for the first time.
“I’ve just never been able to do it,” Atwood said of visiting the memorial, which was completed in 1982.
Atwood, who later became a police detective, said he knows a number of people on the wall, but the one name he wanted to find Saturday was his friend Ronald L. Wright. The two had grown up together, and when Atwood decided to join the Marines at 18 there was no stopping Wright, Atwood said.
Wright died in 1968 when he stepped on a land mine, Atwood said, and Wright’s mother always blamed him for her son’s death. He’s never been able to bring himself to visit his friend’s grave, he said.
On Saturday he found Wright’s name on panel 44E, row 60, and he ran his fingers over it, shaking his head.
“I’m still in the blocking stage. I want to go somewhere and sit down and think a minute,” he said after seeing Wright’s name. “All I can see when I was touching and reading his name was his mother’s face telling me I got her son killed.”
A half-dozen women of various ages knitted intently near a pile of hand-made scarves while frail, silver-haired men sat waiting for a chance to tell their war stories Saturday as tourists and veterans filed into the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
The museum planned a series of events to celebrate the Veterans Day weekend.
The knitters had gathered to commemorate 1940s homefront efforts to supply World War II troops with warm socks and sweaters.
Nearby, Tom Blakey, 92, of New Orleans sat behind a small table with two grainy black and white photos of his younger self, one standing at ease in uniform in 1942, the other aboard a motorcycle in 1944. Also on the table were pictures of a bridge on the Merderet River in Normandy _ a bridge that he and fellow members of the Army’s 82nd Airborne fought to secure as the D-Day invasion unfolded in 1944.
Blakey pointed with gnarled fingers at a map of the landing site and said holding the bridge was key to keeping German forces away from Utah and Omaha beaches.
“If we’d a let them get to Utah and Omaha, the men on those beaches would have been in bad shape,” he said.
Blakey regularly takes part in oral history programs at the museum, an opportunity he relishes.
“What the hell else would I do with my life at this time?” he said.
At the National Cemetery in Bourne, Mass., on Cape Cod, about 1,000 people including Cub Scouts and Gold Star Mothers gathered on a crisp fall day for a short ceremony.
They then spread out to plant 56,000 flags amid the cemetery’s flat gravestones, transforming the green landscape into a sea of fluttering red, white and blue.
Until last year, the cemetery did not permit flags or flag holders on graves. That changed under pressure from Paul Monti of Raynham, Mass., whose son, Sgt. 1st Class Jared Monti, was killed by Taliban fighters while trying to save a fellow soldier in 2006 in Afghanistan. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his valor and is buried at the Bourne cemetery.
Paul Monti led a brief ceremony Saturday where the pledge of allegiance was recited, Miss Massachusetts sang the national anthem and a dedication was read.
In the Mojave Desert in California, veterans plan to resurrect a war memorial cross that was part of a 13-year legal battle over the separation of church and state.
The Sunday ceremony on Sunrise Rock follows a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union that argued the cross was unconstitutional because it was in the Mojave National Preserve.
The Supreme Court intervened in 2010 and directed a court to consider a land swap, leading to a settlement that transferred Sunrise Rock to veterans groups in exchange for five acres of privately owned land.
Henry Sandoz, who cared for the original cross as part of a promise to a dying World War I veteran, will re-dedicate a new, 7-foot steel cross on the same hilltop.
Thousands of spectators are expected to line Fifth Avenue for New York City’s Veterans Day Parade on Sunday.
Former Mayor Ed Koch is the grand marshal for the parade, which will run for 30 blocks, starting at 26th Street.
Also marching will be the Navajo Code Talkers, who transmitted coded messages during WWII, and other veteran groups.
Some participants in the parade are collecting coat donations for Superstorm Sandy victims.
The theme is “United we Stand” and the parade marks the 200th anniversary of The War of 1812.
The parade begins at 11:15 a.m. after a wreath-laying ceremony at the Eternal Light Monument at 24th Street. Bleachers and a reviewing stand are located at Fifth Avenue and 41st Street.
A few hundred people attended a Veterans Day parade Saturday in downtown Atlanta.
Roger Ware, 68, walked down the sidewalk wearing his old Air Force flight suit and a patch that read, “Viet Cong Hunting Club.” He was in the service nearly 24 years, including two tours in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972 as a crewman on a C-130 gunship. He said the military is more respected now than when he returned home from Vietnam. Ware said the Sept. 11 terror attacks probably changed how the country views its armed forces.
“It just wasn’t a good time and right now we’re kind of riding on the tails of the troops who served in the Middle East,” he said.
Farther down the road, veterans Ronald McLendon, 73, of Kennesaw, and Randy Bergman, 59, of Cartersville, were working as parade marshals. McLendon said when he returned from Vietnam, he was spit on by protesters in San Francisco. He was in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and was deployed to Vietnam from 1967 to 1968.
He described the parade as a chance to receive a public thank you.
“You’ve got to remember that today everyone in the military is strictly volunteer,” McLendon said. “So there’s a lot of guys getting out there, getting shot in Iraq and Afghanistan that volunteered to be in the military.”
Squads of high school ROTC students marched in uniforms, chanting as they went along the street.
Bergman said he would reluctantly support sending young soldiers to fight if it was necessary for national defense. He was unsure how and whether the U.S. should end its military involvement in Afghanistan.
“How many lives have we already put over there? And are we going to pull out and say, `We lost.’ I look back to Vietnam and see the same thing,” he said.
Gresko reported from Washington. McGill reported from New Orleans. Associated Press writer Ray Henry in Atlanta and freelance photojournalist Gretchen Ertl in Bourne, Mass., contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)