MERCED — Local residents lined Main Street in Merced on Sunday for the annual Veterans Day Parade, which featured marching bands, motorcycles, classic cars, firetrucks, horses and military service members of all ages.
After almost a decade of war, there was no shortage of fresh-faced veterans in the parade and watching from the crowd.
"It makes me proud," said Giovanni Perez, 23, a veteran of Iraq who recently returned home to Merced. "It's an emotional thing. When you come out here and see so many people supporting it, it's awesome."
Perez, who worked in the Army patrolling the Syrian border and delivering food supplies, said the parade has taken on a new meaning for him.
"You never know who you're looking at in civilian clothes," he said. "That person may have given four, five, 10 years of their life to the service."
Roughly 1,500 people were on hand to pay respects, officials said.
"I decided to come out because my daughter's in the military and my dad was in the military, and I support them," Merced native Michael Macias said. "It means a lot to them that we come out and support what they've done."
Just before the parade started, Jim Kanabay, Merced County veterans services officer, recognized several members of the military before a crowd of hundreds at Bob Hart Square, declaring them honorary grand marshals.
Kanabay, a veteran himself and a lead organizer of the event, said the parade helped reach out to veterans, many of whom are trying to reintegrate into civilian life.
"It helps them see they are respected and honored," he said. "It helps them feel a tinge of that esprit de corps that they left when they got out."
One of those honored was Juan Polino, 29, from Planada, who after the ceremony was approached by the sister of Karina Lau, a 20-year-old Livingston woman who was killed in Iraq.
The two exchanged a few words before the woman broke down and cried. Polino held her.
"I gave her my spot," Polino said, explaining a dramatic series of events in which he gave up a seat for Lau on a helicopter that later would be shot down. "So that should have been me."
"No it shouldn't," the woman said. "You survived for a reason."
"I know. I know. I know. I try. I try," he responded. "I haven't seen her mother ever. It's been nine years, and it hurts. It hurts."
Kanabay, whose job is helping service members use programs offered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said that as the military continues to draw down forces in Afghanistan, there will be more veterans coming home.
"There's a certain population that's hurting," he said. "The guys who are coming back from Iraq, it's hard to find jobs. We look and see what we can do to get them back on their feet."
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.