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Veterans Day parades in Southern California honor 'those willing to risk their lives'

Veterans Day parades in Southern California honor 'those willing to risk their lives'
Former U.S. Marine Andrew Genninger, 87, leads the annual Veterans Day parade in Fallbrook. The veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam received a second lieutenant field commission during the Korean War. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Chosen as grand marshal of the Veterans Day parade here and asked to give a speech at the end of the route, Brad Fite planned to stress his story as a Marine severely wounded in Afghanistan and his refusal to give in to his injuries.

In preparation, he even wrote some words in advance, akin to his book, "Life After Death: A Survivor's Story."

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Then, as the marchers prepared to step off, Fite thought better of it.

"Today isn't about me," he said, sitting in the backseat of a 1970 Plymouth Road Runner convertible. "Today is all about respecting the people who came before me, and people still fighting, and people who will be fighting in the future."

The parade began on Main Street and marched toward the Village Square, where Fite gave his impromptu speech to applause and calls of "God bless you" and "Thank you for your service."

It was a parade like many others in numerous towns, large and small: full of flags — lots of flags — a VFW color guard, bands, classic cars, dogs (many with American flag bandannas), men and women in various uniforms and the streets lined with people showing their appreciation.

"This is Fallbrook," said Sandy Hull, a community activist who wears a pin designating her as the honorary mayor. "We love the people who are willing to risk their lives so we can live in frivolity."

It's a common feeling in this community north of Camp Pendleton and adjacent to the Naval Weapons Station, straight down Ammunition Road.

Several dozen Girl Scouts marched in the parade, including some from Camp Pendleton, daughters of Marines and sailors currently overseas.

"Where is your father?" 8-year-old Mackenzi Horton was asked. "He's deployed," she said quietly.

Why is this parade important? "To show respect for people in the military," said Ceceilia Angell, 11, whose father also is deployed.

Marines and sailors from Camp Pendleton are part of the 3,500 U.S. service personnel in the Middle East assisting the Iraqis, Kurds and others in preparing to fight against the Islamic State.

One man watching the parade wore a black sweatshirt: "Marine Corps: The Power and the Glory." A young woman wore a pink sweatshirt: "My Man Is A Marine. I put the Ooh in his Ooh-rah."

Bill Witherston, a World War II veteran, sat in a lawn chair near a sandwich shop and expressed his admiration. "They say we were the Greatest Generation. Maybe so, but this current crew is damn good, too."

Jim Grasso brought his 5-year-old grandson, Carter Fierro, to soak up the Americana. "It's all about our country, right?" he asked. His grandson nodded, "Right."

The parade was brief, less than 30 minutes, but memorable. "There's nothing as good as a small-town parade," said Julie Sprockton, who traveled to Fallbrook from nearby Oceanside.

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Fite, 28, lives at Camp Pendleton. He medically retired as a corporal, but as the recipient of a Purple Heart, he is allowed to remain in base housing.

His injuries occurred while he was in a vehicle hit by a roadside bomb during some of the bloodiest fighting against the Taliban in Helmand province in 2010. He underwent multiple surgeries and struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. He thinks daily about the buddies who did not come home.

Fite was accompanied to the parade by his wife, Aimee, and their son, Brixton, who just turned 1.

"He's a future Marine," his father said.

To the north, in Los Angeles County, thousands gathered for the 12th annual San Fernando Valley Veterans Day Parade, which began in Mission Hills.

James Snead, an anthropology professor from West L.A., attended with his wife and 11-year-old son, all wearing brimmed cowboy-style hats.

"I'm old enough to remember the end of the Vietnam War, and it's important that we treat our veterans better now than we did then, so a parade is a great way to do that," Snead said. "Don't you love the drum cadence going there? It gets your blood moving. Where else do you get that?"

Some had a more personal connection. Almost 30 members of the Guzman family, children and adults, attended to honor their three relatives who were named honorary grand marshals in this year's parade.

Valencia resident Teressa Soto, 36, said the honor meant a lot to her father, Art Guzman, and her uncles.

"My dad, he's carried pain for a lot of years because he never got the appreciation that some of the other conflicts received," she said tearfully. "So for him to be an honorary grand marshal, along with my two uncles, it's kind of like the validation that he needed."

The family wore forest green and beige shirts that said "Vietnam 1959-1975" on the front. On the back was a black print of a highly detailed pencil drawing of military imagery, including tanks and helicopters.

Soto said her father had found the drawing in his boot locker, a remnant from the previous tenant and a fellow veteran. Her father keeps the original framed in his home.

"We had it transferred onto the shirts because it was the best way that we could remember what the war was like because a Vietnam veteran drew it while he was in Vietnam," she said.

Also on the sidelines was Lucy Lopez, 70, white-haired but with the energy of a teenager, who ecstatically whooped and called out to thank the veterans individually.

"God bless you! Ay!" she said.

"Thank you for coming out!" he shouted back.

"Thank you for your service!" a man leaned out of a truck to respond.

Lopez grew up in San Fernando and knew many of the veterans driving by because she went to school with them

"I feel the joy and the gladness and the happiness and just so blessed to see all these people coming out to celebrate these great men," she said. "I hope we can really appreciate them each day, not just today."

Lopez said she and her husband have attended the parade for so many years, she's lost count.

Near the end of the parade, a man in a red USMC jersey standing in the back of a silver Hummer adorned with a red-and-yellow flower arrangement bearing the letters USMC, called out to the whole group: "Thanks for coming! God bless America!"

Times staff writer Perry reported from Fallbrook and Goldenstein from Mission Hills.

Follow @LATsandiego on Twitter for San Diego County news and @taygoldenstein for California breaking news.

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