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Amid motorcycles and American flags, Philly pays homage to military veterans

Patrons of the Bridesburg Memorial Day Parade prepare for events May 26. Bridesburg is a borough of Philadelphia, Pa., and hosted kickoff celebrations of Air Force Week Philadelphia. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)

For nearly a year in Vietnam during the early 1970s, Army Sgt. Ollie Tansimore Jr. fought in the war as a “tunnel rat.”

Simply put, “I looked for the enemy,” Tansimore said Sunday, standing along the Philadelphia Veterans Parade route in Center City. “Anytime we found a tunnel, that was my job.”

When the Philly native got back to the United States in 1971, he married his wartime pen pal, a woman whose photo he carried in his helmet, sealed in plastic. A decade would go by until he found his way to the Northeast Philadelphia Vet Center, where he still attends group meetings that have helped him cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Against the backdrop of an election weekend — and one week before the federal holiday honoring the nation’s military veterans — Tansimore and other parade attendees said they are looking for elected officials to pay more attention to the health needs of veterans.

“These are the two main things you really look for: better health care and help for” homeless veterans, Tansimore said.

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The fifth annual parade started at 16th and JFK Boulevard and proceeded east down Market Street, culminating at Independence Mall. There, agencies and organizations provided veterans and their families access to resources for a range of needs, including jobs, educational opportunities, financial assistance and, the big topic along the parade route, health care.

Flanked by rows of motorcycles on Market Street, Caroline Marshall echoed the call for better health-care benefits from an especially informed perspective. The 59-year-old West Chester resident is a nurse who rides a red Harley-Davidson Softail Deluxe as part of the group Stars and Stripes, Bars and Pipes The nonprofit supports members of the military and first responders through events such as welcoming returning soldiers at the airport and escorting them home.

“I’m always looking for health-care for veterans,” Marshall said, including more services for mental-health and addiction treatment.

But the need for health-care reform goes beyond veterans, said Marshall, who works in hospice. She has felt “almost embarrassed” at times to tell people she’s a health-care professional.

Even her insurance coverage comes with high co-pays. And it’s been a tough year navigating the health-care system after her fiance, also a member of Stars and Stripes, had a liver transplant last year.

“It’s all a numbers game,” Marshall said. “No one sees the whole person.”

As the riders got back on their bikes, which growled and roared toward Independence Mall, a man named Harvey, wearing glasses and a ball cap, watched from a street corner.

He declined to give his last name, but said he served as an infantryman in the Army during the 1950s. “Cold, rainy, and muddy,” he recounted of his service, with a laugh.

In addition to needing “better health care from the VA,” he said, veterans are also wanting for programs to help connect them with work opportunities.

He’d come to the parade, he said, because “I wanted to pay my respects.”

Brian Coffee, a Gulf War veteran who served in the Navy, said the parade was an important show of recognition and support. “A lot of us put a lot of sacrifice and time into trying to serve our country the best we could,” he said.

Parade watchers Jackie Campbell and Lynne Drever, both from Dundee, Scotland, have been coming to Philadelphia to do their holiday shopping for 18 years — but this was the first year the timing worked out so they could also attend the veterans event.

They waved American flags, and Drever snapped photos to show to her brother back home. In Scotland, Drever explained, veterans are honored with church services to mark Remembrance Day. “But there’s no big parades,” she said.

Drever said the parade here struck her as a “more inclusive” format. “It’s nice to be able to say thank you to them,” she said.

Tansimore, the Army tunnel rat, missed the parade last year because his wife had died. On Sunday, he recalled how they met: He chose her name off a list of possible pen pals, supplied by the Red Cross. The picture of her that he carried in his helmet he now carries on his phone.

“My angel,” he said.

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© 2019 The Philadelphia Inquirer