By JAY REEVES, Associated Press
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — A patriotic procession billed as the nation’s longest-running Veterans Day parade will roll once again on Thursday after taking a year off because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Reduced to an online-only event in 2020 because of COVID-19 safety precautions, the National Veterans Day Parade will stretch through downtown Birmingham in a traditional format that includes military units, ROTC groups, floats, veterans organizations, high school bands and lots of waving flags.
“Our plan is to have as normal of a parade as possible,” said Mark Ryan, president of the National Veterans Day Foundation, which stages the event.
More than 100 groups have signed up to participate, down about 20 from most years, and the weather forecast isn’t great — rain chances increase around the time the parade is scheduled to begin. But Ryan said organizers hope tens of thousands will come out.
“Our goal is to show our veterans our special they are to us, not only individually but collectively,” he said.
Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael A. Grinston, an Alabama native, will serve as grand marshal, Ryan said.
Birmingham isn’t the only place to claim its celebration of veterans is the nation’s oldest. Leavenworth County, Kansas, dates its festivities back to the year after World War I ended, 1918, or nearly 30 years before the Birmingham event was established. And Emporia, Kansas, has been recognized as having the first Veterans Day event in 1953.
But the Veterans Administration credits Birmingham with having the first celebration to use the term “Veterans Day” in its title after World War II veteran Raymond Weeks organized “National Veterans Day” in 1947. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed legislation changing the federal holiday from Armistice Day to Veterans Day in 1954.
The parade has been held annually, Ryan said, and organizers considered canceling it last year because of public health safety before opting for a virtual event that included video performances, salutes and video from past parades and was watched thousands watched online, he said.
“Smarter minds than mine came together and convinced me we had to have one,” said Ryan.
A dinner Wednesday night honored service members who participated in the response to COVID-19, which has killed more than 755,000 people in the United States, or more than the combined number of 673,687 U.S. service members who died from combat or other causes in both world wars, Korea, Vietnam, the two Gulf wars and the global war on terror that followed the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Service members helped in the fight against COVID-19 by cleaning nursing homes, setting up testing stations and administering vaccines. “We’re honoring all of them,” said Ryan.