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Miami Beach’s Veterans Day parade gets big turnout this year

Despite a low turnout last year among participants and attendants, this year’s Veterans Day parade in Miami Beach drew more than 1,000 people.

BY RODOLFO ROMAN
Special to The Miami Herald
Under a drizzle, Lisa Perez walked the streets of Miami Beach carrying an American flag and a framed picture of her son, Jason Vazquez, a U.S. Army soldier.

In September 2008, Vazquez died in combat when a bomb exploded about 100 feet from his Humvee during a mission in Afghanistan. He was 24.

On Wednesday, Perez, who wore a T-shirt displaying a picture of her son, was joined by family and friends, along with more than a thousand others who paid tribute to those who serve in the military at the Miami Beach Veterans Day parade.

“My son would have wanted me to do this, to be here to honor him and the rest of the guys serving our country,” Perez said. The picture she clutched also included Joshua Harris, who served with Vazquez in the Bravo Battery unit in Operation Enduring Freedom. Harris was 20 when he died during the mission.

The six-year Miami Beach resident said it’s important to honor the service given by the men and women in uniform.

“Everybody forgets the veterans, but if you see a soldier on the street, thank them or help them,” Perez said. “They put their lives on the line for our freedom.”

The parade — sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3559 in Miami Beach and the city’s American Legion Post 85 — began at 17th Street and headed south on Washington Avenue to 11th Street, where it then veered to Flamingo Park. At the park, a wreath-laying ceremony was held and followed by a 21-gun salute and picnic.

Last year, the Nov. 11 event fell on hard times as attendance dwindled among viewers and participants, organizers say. But this year was a different story.

About 1,400 participants signed up to march in the parade, which featured members of the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Army Reserve, the Miami Beach High School marching band, Miami Dolphins cheerleaders, Miami Heat dancers and an array of older model cars, such as a 1916 Model-T convertible.

Hundreds of people waving American flags lined up on the sidewalk to watch soldiers marching and riding on Humvees on Washington Avenue, along with a fire truck, conga dancers and the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus, a mobile multimedia recording studio.

In an effort to boost attendance and participation, Miami Beach Commissioner Jerry Libbin stepped in to lend a hand. Libbin said he was so disappointed with the 2008 showing that he committed on the spot to drawing at least 500 participants. Attendance was about triple that number.

“It’s a matter of getting community pride and giving respect to our veterans,” said Libbin, who started a tradition at City Hall of handing out the key to the city to veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “We all know the reason we stay safe is because of the veterans and that’s why we enjoy our freedom.”

Jose Escamilla, company commander of the 377 MI Battalion, came from Fort Lauderdale to participate in the parade.

“It was nice for us to be here,” said Escamilla, who rode in a Humvee and was stationed in Baghdad four years ago. “It’s good to hear that people are looking out for the military to show them what we are all about.”

Francisco Montebello, who is from Brazil, was on his way to work but parked his car in the middle of Washington Avenue and Lincoln Road to pay homage to those who have fought for his second home.

“This shows love for your country,” Montebello said as he applauded soldiers who marched in front of him. “This is emotional to see all these people who fight for our country.”

Veteran Marshall Berkson said the parade displays unity.

“Our country should remain strong,” said Berkson, who wore his green, 60-year-old World War II armored infantry Company C unit jacket. “We need to be strong and we need to protect our country, and our armed forces take care of that for us.”

After the parade, participants attended a ceremony and picnic at Flamingo Park where they had a chance to catch up with fellow soldiers and enjoy hot dogs.

Escamilla says it’s a great feeling to meet other veterans.

“It’s humbling,” he said. “Even though we are different in age, we all have a common kinship because we are all brothers.”

Ivette Borrello, who attended the parade with her family, is grateful for the veterans’ efforts.

“I want my children to appreciate what freedom is,” said Borrello, who held a large U.S. flag on a pole. “Thanks to them, we can hold this flag and say what we want without the government saying anything.”

As for Perez, she says Vazquez’s spirit will live on as her daughter, Janice Vazquez, will fulfill her brother’s dream: becoming a police officer. Janice Vazquez is training to join the Logan Square department near Chicago.

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