Gabe Thompson of Modesto served three tours of duty in Vietnam.
He recently had hip replacement surgery and suspects his 458 training jumps with the 101st Airborne and 82nd Airborne divisions likely wore out his heir-born parts.
Thompson, 66, recalls being on the ground in 'Nam when planes flew over and dumped the defoliant called Agent Orange.
"I remember wiping it off of my arms," he said. "Everything was dead within three days except us."
He stepped on pungi sticks, a booby trap consisting of multiple bamboo sticks so sharp that they could pierce a soldier's boots. Thompson was lucky. The tips of the pungis he trampled weren't coated with toxins as were so many others.
Thompson returned to the States following the Tet Offensive in 1968. Eventually, his body began to break down to the point where he no longer could work. When he applied for disability benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs, it took him five years and three appeals to reach 100 percent disability.
Today, when Thompson meets other veterans, he greets them by saying, "Welcome home and thank you for your service."
Then he tells them what many don't want to hear: "You've got to stand in line (for VA benefits). There's 2 million others ahead of you."
Indeed, as veterans parade through downtown Modesto this morning, the streets will be lined with adoring masses, among them other veterans such as Thompson. The outpouring of well-deserved love will be followed by a gathering at Graceada Park and other ceremonies elsewhere.
Then, the crowds will disperse. Some folks will go home to watch the 49ers play the Rams, and then get ready to start the workweek.
But veterans from World War II to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who have endured physical or emotional wounds or both, can't simply check their problems at the door. Many will continue to fight to receive health care and counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder because the VA cannot handle them all. They will struggle to find jobs.
The nation sends its soldiers, sailors, Marines and pilots into battle overseas, and when they're wounded, they face a different but equally perplexing opponent back home: bureaucracy.
A story on Friday detailed how soldiers even from the most recent wars have struggled to get their VA disability benefits because their military records were lost or incomplete.
It's an arduous process even when records are accurate and available, Vietnam veteran Al Pound of Modesto said.
"Everything takes so long to get," he said. "(Vets) are fighting for two or three years, and those are the (cases) that are justified."
In 2007, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., came under fire after The Washington Post exposed problems with the quality of the care soldiers received, along with the condition of the facility.
VA hospitals and clinics have huge caseloads, Pound said, and he blames the federal government for not sufficiently funding the VA.
Patience to become a patient becomes a virtue, Modesto veteran Steve Lawson said. Before he became director of the Modesto Vet Center, which offers PTSD counseling, he worked as a veterans liaison for former Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced.
Yes, the system can be painfully slow, he said. Trying to force the issue can make it only slower.
One vet filed repeated claims, hoping to get a quicker response. When that didn't happen, the vet complained to Cardoza's office. Lawson investigated.
"I found out that every time he'd send in something new, they'd (VA officials would) pull the file and send it back to obtain new evidence," Lawson said. Each complaint sent the vet back to the back of the line.
"My advice to him finally was, 'Don't send any more claims in,' " Lawson said. "He didn't, and he finally got his benefits."
In Modesto, the new VA clinic on Oakdale Road is expected to open in January and will help local veterans in need of care, as will a promised VA hospital someday in French Camp.
But the problems aren't limited to medical care and psychological counseling. Two million veterans have returned to civilian life in the United States since 2001, and roughly 250,000 of them cannot find work, according to Modesto businessman Michael Loschke.
He heads a new nonprofit called VEST (Veteran Entrepreneur Service Team) Inc. The goal is to help veterans develop businesses that ultimately could create jobs here in the valley. It's patterned after a successful program in the eastern United States called VETransfer, which helps veterans become entrepreneurs.
Loschke says he believes a similar program will work here, with area business people serving as mentors.
"If you're a U.S. veteran, if you possess the DNA, if you look like you have the talents, we can train you and coach you in this area," Loschke said.
VEST Inc.'s board is strictly volunteer, and Loschke basically is covering the startup costs himself.
"We are looking to partner with someone (or some) agency that can assist us in 'clearing' interested vets for the program," he said. "The partner would assist in assessing vets for emotional-psychological obstacles that might impede the vet's progress."
Frequently, veterans are caught in the crossfire of party politics.
A bill authored by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, and signed into law last July by President Barack Obama orders all federal department heads to treat relevant military training equal to a federal license for hiring purposes.
In September, though, Democrats proposed a $1 billion jobs program for veterans to work on federal lands and for local public safety agencies. The bill was stopped by Senate Republicans. Several jobs programs for veterans exist without a system in place to monitor their effectiveness, the GOP argued.
Both sides are right. Veterans need jobs. And it's not enough to simply throw more money at veterans' causes. There needs to be accountability the kind we didn't see with federal housing money supposedly overseen by Modesto city officials and definitely abused by a local housing nonprofit.
Veterans risked their lives for the nation. Whatever funding comes their way needs to be spent on them, whether for medical care, psychological counseling jobs, education or housing.
They deserve effective and streamlined processes. And they deserve respect 365 days a year not just one.
Today, proud veterans representing six wars will walk or ride through Modesto's streets to the warmth of an appreciative and patriotic public.
The irony? It's the one time each year when these veterans consider being in a long line a real pleasure.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at email@example.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.
In November 1919, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Nov. 11 as the first Armistice Day with the words: "To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country's service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations."
According to the Veterans Affairs Department, there are about 1.7 million surviving U.S. World War II veterans, who are dying at a rate of about 740 per day.
Three times as many college graduates served in Vietnam as in WWII.
California is home to 166,700 female veterans, the largest population of any state.
According to a 2009-11 U.S. census survey, there were 11,468 veterans living in Modesto and 26,738 living in Stanislaus County. Nearly a quarter of them are ages 55 to 64.