Lest We Forget: Black Veterans on Memorial Day

Black Veterans for Social Justice, founded in 1979, is a veterans service and community-based nonprofit organization headquartered in Bed-Stuy. Every year veterans can be seen marching along the little stretch of pavement between Throop Avenue and Marcus Garvey Boulevard on Willoughby Avenue in honor of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

The annual parade, now in its 11th year, has the usual fanfare: a hot sizzling grill pumping out burgers and hot dogs, the big banners and an even bigger line of marchers, as well as refreshments to stay cool in the first sweat of summer.

Attendees at Black Veterans for Social Justice Memorial Day rally in Bed-Stuy.

“This traditionally is the start of summer. And I’ve had so many people text me saying Happy Memorial Day. And although I say thank you, or sometimes I just give a thumbs up emoji. But Memorial Day is to commemorate those who have fallen, primarily on active duty, but we want to remember those who are soldiers for life, and who did not get a chance to enjoy the fruits of their retirement,” Walter Gist, a veterans outreach coordinator with the Services for the Underserved, said.

Gist is manning one of the many different types of services tables Black Veterans for Social Justice hosts to connect veterans with different kinds of support services ranging from job training and interview preparation to helping people apply for social services like ERAP funding, a pandemic-era rent relief program.

William Lugo has been attending the Black Veterans for Social Justice parade since its inception. It’s the easiest for him to get to at 73-years-old, as a local resident of Bed-Stuy. Lugo said the parade has helped him in the past get connected with all his benefits.

“Remember the men and women died defending this country,” Lugo said in an interview. “That’s why there will always be a Memorial Day.”

While thanking a veteran for their service may seem customary in today’s America, Vietnam Veteran Errol Vanmooden said that Americans have still failed to recognize the service of his fellow Vietnam service members.

“I remember my fallen brother in Vietnam. I remember the good times and the bad. I remember the holidays. Christmas, Birthdays. I remember the disrespectful welcome that I received back from Vietnam. I remember one person saying ‘are you part of the baby killers?’,” Vanmooden said.

While Vanmooden says he wants the day to be about celebrating the contributions of fallen soldiers, he couldn’t shake the bad memories that come with the day.

He remembers when he was injured on the battlefield, his buddies coming to help him. He was the only Black member of his unit, but that didn’t matter. Army green was the only color that mattered, he said.

He remembers his 22nd birthday. He was awoken by a barrage of heavy artillery fire early one morning in the jungles of Vietnam. Rockets would land and get stuck in the thick mud. He was sure he was going to die.

“I remember my brothers were always there for me,” Vanmooden said solemnly.