Year after year after year, I’ve watched as people replace the three magic words with various saccharine substitutes: “Support the troops. Bring them home”, “dissent is patriotic,” – none of it feels like real affection to most of the roughly 50,000 who served and now live in San Francisco.

At Sunday’s San Francisco Veterans Day Parade, just a few hundred casual onlookers showed up. That much is typical, has been ever since the Vietnam War. But what chilled me in reading SF Chronicle reporter Alejandro Martinez-Cabrera’s event coverage was how only a 23-year-old ROTC volunteer Martinez interviewed expressed any regret at the low turnout.

According to parade chairman and Veterans Affairs Commission president Wallace Levin, one of the reasons behind the crowd-free parade is this city’s cynicism about the military.

A decade ago, he says he hoped to confront a lack of “patriotism” in the city, maybe change some minds. But by coaching himself to see the bigger picture – that America is great because of cities dissenting cities like San Francisco – and his resigned himself to the lack of affection in this city.

While shooting this video, however, I discovered that factors besides our “cynicism” might have been responsible for the low turnout, much of it related to the advance publicity of the event.

The Chronicle, in its advance brief on the event, reported the wrong time for the parade, which resulted in droves of people showing up at 1 p.m. for an 11 a.m. march, parade director Renie Champagne said.

Add to that that broadcast publicity was sparser this year, as at least one radio station dropped its sponsorship due to a lack of funding.

But the greatest publicity failure was online. Beyond a blog or two, there wasn’t anything, presumably because Champagne was accustomed to mailing out press releases to the traditional media. “That’s all the public gets,” he said.

The veterans sourced in the Chronicle’s coverage of the parade, many of them older, either seemed wistfully trapped in the past – recalling vivid memories of triumph after WWII – or discounted the 2009 public’s lack of appreciation. The parade marshal was even quoted as saying this year’s parade was the best he could remember. Maybe he even meant it.

But beneath the code of silence, most vets in this city are secretly grieving over this. Purple Heart Navy legend Renie Champagne is one of them. He’s directed the city’s parade all 69 years he’s lived in San Francisco. After choosing his words carefully during an hour-long interview in his living room, the floodgates opened when we broached the concept of defending freedom. His eyes welled up. He went quiet. He looked me in the eyes, as if pleading, for the first time in the interview.

Please make sure your comment adheres to our comment policy. If it doesn't, it may be deleted. Repeat violations may cause us to revoke your commenting privileges. No one wants that!
  • raqcoon

    I think everybody blew it on this one. Publicity was bad/wrong. Code Pink should have had an informational campaign to let people know that Obama is considering making a major decision on Afghanistan, whether to escalate the war or compromise on it. I don’t think Obama will pullout completely, and it seems Afghans might not want a swift pullout either, to be left facing the Taliban on their own. Given that most Americans, and perhaps most San Franciscans, are unaware of Obama’s impending decision, and how his decision will affect the U.S. economy and everything else, what better place to inform people other than at a military-related parade. Media would have covered this.

  • raqcoon

    I think everybody blew it on this one. Publicity was bad/wrong. Code Pink should have had an informational campaign to let people know that Obama is considering making a major decision on Afghanistan, whether to escalate the war or compromise on it. I don’t think Obama will pullout completely, and it seems Afghans might not want a swift pullout either, to be left facing the Taliban on their own. Given that most Americans, and perhaps most San Franciscans, are unaware of Obama’s impending decision, and how his decision will affect the U.S. economy and everything else, what better place to inform people other than at a military-related parade. Media would have covered this.

  • james

    i had no idea where and when the parade was being held. i would have loved to go if i had known. sorry veterans. i appreciate you as do many other 415 natives.

  • james

    i had no idea where and when the parade was being held. i would have loved to go if i had known. sorry veterans. i appreciate you as do many other 415 natives.

  • bloomsm

    It is not inconsistent to oppose war and simultaneously respect our veterans. San Francisco is home to a major VA hospital (Fort Miley), yet the presence of so many veterans in our community is often overlooked. Too many Vietnam vets have had their lives shattered by PTSD; a new generation of veterans is coming home with the same nightmares from Iraq and Afghanistan. Military suicide rates are rising, and we are ill-equipped as a nation to help out our vets.

  • bloomsm

    It is not inconsistent to oppose war and simultaneously respect our veterans. San Francisco is home to a major VA hospital (Fort Miley), yet the presence of so many veterans in our community is often overlooked. Too many Vietnam vets have had their lives shattered by PTSD; a new generation of veterans is coming home with the same nightmares from Iraq and Afghanistan. Military suicide rates are rising, and we are ill-equipped as a nation to help out our vets.