Maj. Nhia Long Vang has marched for years in Fresno's Veterans Day Parade alongside other Hmong soldiers who fought with the U.S. in the Vietnam War, and the parade always makes him proud to be a veteran.
But Wednesday's parade had even more meaning for Vang and other Hmong war veterans, because it reunited them with their esteemed leader, Gen. Vang Pao. With the general riding in the parade for the first time, Vang said he had an even stronger sense of patriotism and connection to his adopted homeland.
"This is my country, our country," he said.
Under cloudy skies, thousands of spectators lined the downtown route, cheering the veterans, their families and marching bands in the parade, which is billed as the biggest Veterans Day parade on the West Coast.
Vang Pao's participation emphasized for the general public, but also for the Hmong people, the role that Hmong have had in the U.S. military, said Chai Vang, the general's son.
In 1960 during the Vietnam War, President John F. Kennedy, fearing Laos would fall to the communists, authorized the CIA to recruit Hmong jungle fighters. About 25,000 served in special guerrilla units. Many of them -- and their family members -- came to the U.S. later as refugees.
Hmong and Laotian war veterans, while not claiming the benefits available to U.S. military veterans, may yet secure treasured burial spots in U.S. national cemeteries under legislation being drafted by San Joaquin Valley lawmakers.
Knowing that Americans are supportive of military personnel -- whether it's through their enthusiastic attendance at events such as Wednesday's parade or a quiet expression of gratitude -- helps soldiers get through their deployments, said Jacob Barela, an Army veteran from Parlier who served in Iraq for 14 months. He came with his family to see his father, Edward Barela, also an Army veteran, ride in the parade.
Barela said that when he's wearing his uniform, as he did Wednesday, "a lot of people walk up to me and say 'thanks for serving,' and I say 'thank you for your support.' "
Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer, among the dignitaries who spoke during the opening ceremony in front of City Hall, said he was grateful to the veterans for their service, and he offered prayers for soldiers serving abroad.
"There can be no freedom without sacrifice," he said.
Capt. James Knapp, Lemoore Naval Air Station's commanding officer, was the grand marshal of the 90th annual parade. Parade organizers chose the Navy as the honored branch this year.
"This city, this Valley, embraces the military like none I've ever seen," Knapp said.
Police estimated at least 15,000 spectators lined the parade route.
Sylvia Contreras of Fresno, whose husband, Army Sgt. Leonard Contreras, is deployed in Afghanistan, cried as the national anthem was played. The huge turnout for the parade is touching, she said.
"It brings me to tears, because you have all these people and you see how much they support the troops," she said.
Contreras said her 38-year-old husband is on his last deployment, which will end in August. After his scheduled retirement in 2012, the couple will be able to attend Veterans Day parades together, she said.
In the meantime, "I pray to God every day for his safe return," she said.