Just after 10 a.m. on Saturday morning, the sound of an approaching siren sent a spark of energy through a crowd of patriotic onlookers.
“That’s them!” someone shouted, as the news spread throughout the crowd. The veterans had arrived.
The crowd at Gorgas Park quickly formed a corridor for the “Walk of Honor,” in which the group would get to meet and thank soldiers who have sacrificed their health and safety for our freedom. It was all part of the neighborhood’s third annual Hospitalized Veterans Tribute Day.
The motorcycle convoy approached first, escorting the coach bus from the Coatesville VA Medical Center.
As each of the 40 hospitalized veterans got off the bus they were greeted by applause, waving flags, handshakes and high fives.
“I wish it were always like this,” a man wearing a Vietnam veterans hat said, as he greeted the supporters who had come from all over Philadelphia to personally pay tribute to America’s troops.
Bruce Hoffman, President of the 21st Ward Veterans Association, started the Veterans Tribute Day three years ago with the help of countless volunteer organizations, including the Friends of Gorgas Park and the Merion Concert Band.
“We wanted to do something for the guys to bring them out of that hospital,” Hoffman says, “to let them know they’re appreciated, because too many vets are forgotten these days.”
Hoffman is a Vietnam veteran, as well as his brother who was wounded and spent several years recovering in a veteran hospital.
Wearing a T-shirt that read “if you love your freedom thank a vet”, he lined up the healing soldiers and marched them through the “Walk of Honor” to picnic benches set up by the girl scouts.
Margie Rieth came from Abington, along with ten other Daughters of the American Revolution, representing the William Penn chapter.
Every year the Daughters host a Christmas party at the VA hospital in Coatesville, and on Saturday, they handed out American flags and stickers while serving food and drinks to the guests of honor.
Rieth stressed the importance of supporting all veterans, from all wars.
By honoring our living veterans, she said, we honor our country’s first soldiers who fought to establish the United States of America.
The Daughters ran the booth for Operation Bedding, a Roxborough-based organization that sends sheets, pillows, toiletries and other essentials to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While the Merion Concert Band played patriotic songs in the gazebo throughout the afternoon, volunteers from a dozen community organizations staffed tables to collect donations and discuss how their fundraising supports American soldiers.
Leroy Clark, a Service Officer with the Marine Corp League, sold raffle tickets for the grand prize of a “basket of cheer,” aka the “basket of booze.”
Reith’s chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution collects new clothes for the soldiers at the Coatesville hospital, and gives them to the Marine Corp League to take over.
Walter Zamorski sold raffle tickets and explained to the crowd how the Marine Corp League assists veterans, and how he personally tries to help.
Zamorski, who is retired, visits the hospital every week and spends the day driving the men to doctor appointments in the city.
He also serves as an Honor Guard, firing a rifle during the “21 Gun Salute” at veterans’ funerals.
Ron Hart joined the Marines when he was 17. He served in Vietnam between 1973 and 1976, and has been living at the Coatesville VA hospital for one month.
“When I got back nobody looked at us. They said what I did was wrong, and people spit on us, called us baby killers.”
He describes how Vietnam Veterans feel particularly vulnerable in public, with people that have trouble understanding what they have been through.
For Hart, the motorcycle escort was the welcome back he had always wanted.
“At the airport it would tear my heart out to see Iraq guys get that escort. I will always treasure this.”
Motorcycle groups, such as Rolling Thunder, Warriors Watch, Hero’s Welcome, and the American Legion Riders, regularly greet returning soldiers at the airport and ride them home.
Walking with a cane, Hart thanks everyone for the party, and they thank him for his service.
“Today they really did us proud.” Hart said. “They went all out.”