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11-13-03, 05:39 AM
Proud veterans parade

Annual tribute adds a salute to valor in Iraq

By Rick Rogers

November 12, 2003

SAN DIEGO In other years, Fernando Suarez would have been right there on Harbor Drive for San Diego's annual Veterans Day Parade clapping for the Chosin Reservoir survivors and cheering the Vietnam vets.

Not this year. Not since his son, Lance Cpl. Jesus A. Suarez del Solar, 20, died in Iraq after, his father said, he stepped on a U.S. cluster bomb while assigned to the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton.

Instead, as an estimated 10,000 others lined the parade route yesterday, Suarez stood next to a makeshift Iraq War memorial of sheets outlined with spray-painted crosses small memorials of red, yellow, black, blue, silver, green gold, cherry and peach.

Different colors of crosses for each month since the March 2003 invasion. The names of 394 service members neatly filling the crosses in panels resembling the Vietnam Memorial.

Peach is November's color and Army Staff Sgt. Mark D. Vasquez, 35, is the last name on an already sizable list. The date he died is listed as Nov. 8. Scores more crosses wait to be filled by Josie Bitner, who created the piece of living history art for the North County Coalition for Peace and Justice.

"You hear about one or two Marines or soldiers being killed and it's not as impactful as when you look at the total number," said Bitner, from Vista.

Bitner unveiled the memorial Oct. 25 at the Defenders of Freedom Parade in Oceanside, where more than 11,000 Marines and sailors marched through town.

She didn't know what reaction to expect.

"We were a little nervous. But when the Marines came, they would search for their friends' names and then they would explain to their families who these people were. Many thanked us for doing this."

Two Marine drill instructors passing by the memorial yesterday stopped to look at the names and the boot-camp graduation photo of Suarez a handsome young man wearing dress-blues, globe and anchor in the background.

"I am not against the Marines," Escondido resident Suarez, 47, explained to them. "I am against the war."

A long pause followed before the Marines shook Suarez's hand and moved on. Some visitors stood before the crosses for minutes, seemingly mesmerized by the sight.

"I see a lot of body bags when I look at the list," said Steven Shawver, who spent 1968 and 1971 in Vietnam as a combat medic for the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade.

"It's a haunting feeling. It's a high price to pay for what I don't know," he said. "This whole Iraq thing, they say it's not Vietnam. But if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is."

Just a few feet from Suarez, a more typical Veterans Day routine unfolded. Hundreds of veterans representing every service wearing ill-fitting uniforms in many instances and sporting longish hair assembled in haphazard ranks next to the County Administration Building.

JROTC units went through pre-parade drills. Boy Scouts carried flags and marching bands tuned up in the parking lot. Active-duty personnel from every service looked out of place at this tourist spot.

Gail Gallardo, from Bonita, waved a flag and clapped as the veterans marched or were driven by. Her husband, a Vietnam vet, stood next to her.

"We come out every year to show support and appreciation, especially for the Vietnam vets because they were never recognized when they came home," Gallardo said.

"We are hoping to see some Marines or Army troops being rotated through Iraq or Afghanistan come marching through just so they know that the people are behind them," she said "It's always the vets who make the sacrifice. The least we can do is support them."