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Detroit — As Gene Bierl was returning home from the Vietnam War in 1972, he was told not to wear his uniform.

"There was so much protest against the Vietnam War," said Bierl, 70. "They didn't realize that we were just patriots doing our duty."

The experience of veterans such as Terry Baxter, 68, who returned from the war in 1970, may explain why: "People just stared," Baxter said. 

No one thanked him for serving his country in the unpopular war, which wouldn't end for five more years. No one picked up the tab on his lunch.

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On Sunday, Baxter, a Navy veteran, wore a sticker on his motorcycle helmet that said "Salvation is for wimps."

Bierl and Baxter are members of the VFW Riders Group, which had a presence of motorcycles lined up on Trumbull, south of Michigan Avenue, ahead of the 11 a.m. start to the 2019 Detroit Veterans Day Parade.

The group, about two years old, has been known to ride hundreds of miles together, when duty to their brotherhood requires it.

But on Sunday its trek would be much shorter: from Trumbull and Howard, in the Corktown area of Detroit, to the Michigan Central train station on Michigan Avenue. 

Bikers would ride together on the left side of the road. Alongside them, to the right, were the hundreds of runners in the midst of a four-mile trot. Sunday was the 244th anniversary of the U.S. Marine Corps.

On Monday, Veterans Day continues a tradition that started 100 years ago, in 1919, when Armistice Day commemorated the end of World War I a year earlier.

On Nov. 11, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson said that "the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations," according to the U.S. Library of Congress. 

The Detroit Veterans Day Parade is a much more recent creation, starting about a decade and a half ago to resume a custom that "fell off" by the time creator Richard Chatman, now 70, found lacking after returning home as an Air Force veteran in 1972.  

More: Veterans want to 'return patriotism' to Detroit

"I remember going to Veterans Day parades when I was a child within the city, but don't know why it fell off," Chatman previously has said.

Elizabeth Stanhope, 37, came down to Detroit from Attica, in Lapeer County, staying at a nearby friend's house Saturday night to be closer to the race site.

A wheelchair user for the last 21 years, after suffering a spinal cord injury in a car crash, Stanhope said "patriotism is what brought me out."

Her ex-husband is an Army veteran, but at this point her admiration for military service is bigger than a familial connection.

"You should be here, I should be here — anybody in the state of Michigan should be here," Stanhope said before the horn sounded to start the four-mile race. "This is the one day a year they get honor and tribute, but it should be year-round."

Sunday was expected to reach the mid-40s, but had not come close by late morning. Stanhope was prepared, having stuffed heating pads into her gloves. The sacrifice of travel and the physical grind of the race were no deterrent; in her eyes, it was a form of giving back to the people who risked, and sometimes lost, their lives defending America.

Stanhope said she learned an "adapt and overcome" mindset from her ex-husband's experiences.

"Can you imagine sitting in the middle of a desert, in a 130-degree bunker, no air conditioning, no resources, using an outhouse for a bathroom?" Stanhope said. "I think I can be a little chilly for a few miles."

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, the wife of a U.S. Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, took part in the four-mile race. Before stepping off, she told The Detroit News that veterans affairs issues "are personal for us."

Benson has said in the past that during the 2012 primary, when husband Ryan Friedrichs was serving in the 173rd Airborne Division, she came home and found his absentee ballot returned as undeliverable.

Benson said her office is working with Michigan lawmakers to eliminate extra fees associated with veterans' license plates. Those range are either $5 or $10, depending on the design of the plate. 

"People shouldn't have to pay an additional fee in order to show on their car that they served," Benson said. 

Benson, who was elected as Michigan's 43rd Secretary of State in 2018, added that Michigan is creating two new veterans-themed plates: one for women veterans, the other for Blue Star families who have lost loved ones in the line of duty. 

Benson also wants Michigan to join more than a dozen other states with "honor a veteran with your vote" programs, which allow voters to explain whose honor they're voting in. Some states, such as California, allow the user to request a certificate or a lapel pin after saying who they'll be honoring with their vote.

Nichole Gout, 30, pulled son Connor, 7, behind her in a wagon, to the corner of Trumbull and Porter, where, at the sound of a horn, bikers and runners would start toward the train station.

The mother and son from Westland were waiting to catch a glimpse of her husband and Connor's father, Tom, 32, before he stepped off for the race. 

"I hope (Connor) learns the importance of being supportive as a community" during the day's festivities, Nichole said of her son. "They deserve our respect."

Bikers skewed older, while runners tended to be younger. 

Bierl said he's seen a change, improvement, even, in the way veterans, especially those who served in Vietnam, have been treated in recent years. The respect once missing is there now, almost 20 years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which he and the Baxters cite as a turning point.

"We've raised four sons, and two out of the four served," said Terry Baxter. "The oldest is a Marine, and he finished his service before 9/11. The youngest served in Iraq. When he went to pick them up at boot camp, there was no response for the oldest. After 9/11, we picked up the youngest from boot camp in Kentucky. We stopped at a restaurant and the waitress comes over and says 'the soldier eats free.'"

The stares the elder Baxter got, and the outright disdain Bierl recalls, have been replaced by a respect for the need for military service and the people who provide it, the two veterans say. 

"For 20-plus years, there was never a 'thank you' for our service," Bierl said. "Now, people get it."

jdickson@detroitnews.com

@downi75 on Twitter

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