Monday, Nov. 11, is Veterans Day, and tens of thousands are expected to line the streets of 5th Avenue in New York City for the city’s annual Veterans Day Parade. Produced by the United Veterans War Council and dubbed “America’s Parade,” it’s the largest veterans event in the country.
But it didn’t start out that way.
United Veterans War Council President Vince McGowan recently spoke with Business Insider about how the organisation came to exist, and how it has grown the New York City Veterans Day Parade into the largest in the nation.
It all started when McGowan, as a Marine sergeant, returned home from the Vietnam War in 1968. He returned to a home that no longer heralded military service.
“I got home from Vietnam in ’68 to a very unwelcome country and an ungrateful nation,” McGowan said.
McGowan said that back then, Vietnam vets were barred from many of the organisations that existed for veterans, which were largely run by World War II and Korea War veterans.
“They said that Vietnam wasn’t a war,” McGowan said.
Eventually, in 1986, he decided to form his own group. Joining with a World War II vet and a Grenada vet, he named it the United Veterans War Council, after an organisation that originally existed after the War of 1812.
“For me, it was personal,” McGowan said. “I’m certainly not someone who shrinks from a fight.”
McGowan said that from the outset, there was only one criteria that determined whether you could be a part of the UWVC — “Did you serve honorably?”
“It had nothing to do with anything else,” he said.
Then, in 1987, The American Legion decided to stop producing New York’s Veterans Day parade, in part, McGowan said, because of the controversy surrounding gay veterans who wanted to participate.
And so the UWVC took the helm. McGowan described those days as “25 guys with a snare drum marching down 5th Avenue.”
But soon the UWVC, and the New York Veterans Day parade began to grow, in part because of a $US1 million matching donation from Donald Trump, and the parade began to grow.
“We were vindicated in taking a hard stance against popular opinion.”
The tide really turned in 1995, the 50th anniversary of World War II. This quote
from the archives of the New York Timesnails it: “
In recent years, Veterans Day observations have become desultory at best, with spectators often limited to passers-by walking their dogs or heading out for a quart of milk.”
“The 90s were difficult, but successful,” McGowan said.
In 1999, the UWVC raised $US7.5 million.
McGowan even created a recycling program, where people donate clothing and household goods, to independently raise revenue. Even encumbered by costly mailers, the program raised $US1.4 million in 2011.
They’re in the process of transitioning to a digital system for collecting donations and scheduling pickups, and McGowan said that between that and the program’s rising visibility, he expects to generate as much as $US10-15 million in revenue in the coming years.
“We found a very lucrative way to support ourselves,” McGowan said.
Then on Sept. 11, 2001, the world changed, and suddenly, the New York-based veterans group had unprecedented power and influence.
“The country goes to war and everyone starts to pay attention,” McGowan said.
Now, the UWVC operates what McGowan calls a year-round endeavour.
“We have a loudspeaker and a spotlight.”
This year, the UWVC intends to shine that spotlight on women in the service.
One of the parade’s grand marshalls will be recently retired Army Gen. Anne Dunwoody, the first and only woman to achieve the rank of four-star general in the American armed forces.
“They are an under-recognised and under-appreciated group,” McGowan said.
This year’s Veterans Day parade represents a crossroads. The last 12 years have produced millions of new veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and McGowan hopes to get more involvement from those young veterans.
“It is their turn to carry the torch,” he said. “Less than 1% of the American population is serving, carrying that standard takes lots of work. There’s no guarantee of success.”
But the man who built one of the nation’s most prominent veterans organisations from the ground up knows that anything is possible.
“It’s pretty simple when you think about it,” McGowan said. “It’s about sticking to it.”
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