And the Band Played On
By Casie Vinall
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 9, 2003 It's not every day that Vietnam veteran Paul C. Rock gets a call from the mayor. But then again, June 8 was a special all-around day for Rock and the town of Longmont, Colo.
Julia Pirnack, mayor of Longmont, called Rock and his wife, Valerie, about an event that almost didn't happen.
It all started last week with an unexpected early homecoming of some troops from Iraq. Rock is the proud father of Marine Lance Cpl. Zachary Rock, a 19-year-old who had just returned from four months of service in Iraq. Rock decided to organize a parade to honor his son and 12 service members from Colorado who were killed during Operation Iraqi Freedom. With permit in hand, Rock began planning a parade to remember.
However, with such short notice, and despite numerous attempts to muster support and participants in the parade scheduled for Sunday, June 8, Rock was without a band, color guard and any news coverage for the event. But that all changed June 4.
Rock read about Operation Tribute to Freedom on www.defendamerica.mil, the Defense Department's official Web site on the global war on terrorism. He sent an e-mail to the Pentagon, and the ball started rolling.
Brent Krueger, community relations director at the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, received Rock's e-mail and promptly set out to find a solution to Rock's problem.
"I was touched by Mr. and Mrs. Rock's excitement about this parade and how they wanted to make a profound difference in their community," he said. "They are so very proud of their son and want the world to know it."
Krueger acted quickly to see if the department could help. "We immediately began working at the staff level here at the Pentagon and with our folks in Colorado to locate a band or color guard to participate in the Sunday parade. On Friday, we got word that the U.S. Air Force Band of the Rockies would participate in Mr. Rock's parade."
When Rock received a call from Senior Master Sgt. Larry Hill from the band, he said he could hardly contain himself. "My wife and I had grown skeptical that we'd be able to have the kind of tribute that we had hoped for," Rock said.
Getting the Air Force band, he said, meant the event would be "a real, honest to goodness, legitimate parade. Valerie gave me a big hug and said, 'It's really going to happen!'"
Beginning at 11:30 a.m. Sunday, 13-year-old Samantha Pineda started the Longmont event by singing the national anthem. Rock said the audience "responded with applause and 'hoorahs.'" The parade began following a rifle salute from the Veterans of Foreign War. The Air Force band led the way, marching down Main Street.
Rock estimates about 250 people marched in the parade. The Longmont Times-Call and the Boulder Daily Camera were on the scene. Radio Colorado Network on KLMO, 1060 AM, was slated to broadcast the parade coverage. Longmont police provided an escort and the town's public works department helped set up the route.
All eight of the banners Rock and his Vietnam veteran's group had gathered signatures for were displayed. Rock rode down Main Street with a group of motorcyclists led by the Vietnam Survivors group.
The response from the crowd was overwhelming, according to the self-proclaimed neophyte parade planner. Rock said numerous volunteers wanted to carry the red, white and blue flower bouquets to honor the 12 fallen Colorado troops.
"At the end of the procession, people spontaneously came up to ask if they could add their signatures to the 'Thank You' banners," he said.
"Several people I'd never met before sought me out to shake my hand and thank me for organizing this tribute," Rock said. "With only a couple of weeks of planning and couple of days of exposure, we were overwhelmed with the number of people who showed, not only to be in the parade, but also to line Main Street to watch."
Rock thanked the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, Operation Tribute to Freedom and www.DefendAmerica.mil for "transforming this parade from an amateur event into what some people thought was months in the planning."
"Those who knew how little time we had to organize this were quite impressed with the outcome," Rock said. "We've been overwhelmed with the commitment, support and energy of all the people who have worked so diligently to help us with this tribute."
Rock was surprised by what was accomplished in so little time. "I found that people sincerely want to show their support to our service men and women, and this was a great opportunity to do it," he said.
What was the response from Rock's son, who was the primary reason for this parade? Zachary said he took part in the parade mainly to show his support for the troops that are still over there. He was surprised by show of support from the community.
"Honestly, I expected no one to turn out," he said. "I was amazed at how well it went."
The Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran said he got to meet Vietnam, Korean War and World War II vets. Humbled by the presence of these veterans who'd spent far longer in combat, he said, "I don't think I rank in the same category."
For Rock, the parade that almost wasn't turned into "a day that none of us will forget." For Valerie, the parade was an emotional tribute that brought tears to her eyes. For Zachary, it was a way to honor his brothers in arms and to join the ranks of the nation's honored war veterans.
(Casie Vinall is an intern working in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs.)