Parade to honor Vietnam veterans (video)
Oct. 9, 2012 at 5:09 a.m.
Updated Oct. 10, 2012 at 5:10 a.m.
Manuel Rivera never talked about Vietnam.
He never talked about the first time he was shot at, or how close he came to dying in Marble Mountain the day he was pinned under a soldier.
He never mentioned the Freedom Bird that carried him out of Vietnam, or the protestors who called him a "baby killer" once he landed on U.S. soil.
"War was war," Manuel said.
He left the battlefield and those stories behind 40 years ago, but in August, Manuel was thrown back into the front lines to fight for his life against an enemy more ruthless than he ever encountered.
Standing alone on his front lawn Tuesday morning in Victoria, Manuel clutches a coffee mug and shuffles inside to his wife, Diana.
Their living room is relatively free of the reminders of war, save for a Vietnam map he drug in from the garage that day to help explain his war stories.
His movements are slow and his speech deliberate, a daily source of frustration to a man who never before experienced trouble speaking or getting around.
His wife, Diana, 63, said she has learned to read his mind after 39 years of marriage. She finishes most of Manuel's sentences. He lets her.
"When he first came back, he never wanted to talk about it," she said. "Now he's really opening up."
Half reading his mind, half reminding him of his goals, "You're proud of everyone who served in Vietnam, who came out alive and you want to thank them," Diana said.
Manuel sits at the dining table near his wife. A Vietnam veteran cap hides the shaved patch across his scalp and the pink scar from the incision that might have saved his life but destroyed his speech.
"Manuel feels bad because he got sick right after he came up with the idea," Diana said.
In July, he came up with a plan to throw a parade for the Vietnam veterans who never got one.
Veterans from every other war got parades when they come home, Vietnam's never did.
On Aug. 21, after leading a Veterans of Foreign Wars meeting, Manuel drove himself to the hospital worried with a sudden onset of stuttering and confusion.
"I got up there and tried to make sense," Manuel said. "It don't work."
Diana said she never noticed a change.
"He's not the type to be home a lot, he's the type who's always out and about," she said. He wouldn't have been around long enough for her to pick up on slowed speech or unsteady movement.
Doctors initially ruled it a stroke. But the next day, Aug. 22, after a string of tests and scans, doctors found three spots on Manuel's brain.
"I would have never thought I had cancer," Manuel said. "Not a day sick in my life."
Almost immediately, he started on a course to beat the cancer with surgery and aggressive chemotherapy.
Everyone at his treatment center knows about the parade, Diana said. He goes back for his second chemo treatment Oct. 15. They want to see him win, but it's a battle he has to fight alone.
It's crossed Manuel's mind before that fighting cancer is a lot like war. Maybe Vietnam gave him strength to fight it. He struggles to explain the relation.
"You know what I mean," he blurts in frustration.
These days, every word is precious. If he doesn't get an idea out quick, it's gone.
Diana leans over the table and pats his arm.
"He survived Vietnam, he'll survive this," she said. "It's two different battles and he's still fighting for his life."
Ron Kocian, a close friend and member of the National Guard, took over the plans for the parade once Manuel's diagnosis was confirmed.
Without his help, the parade's planning would have ended in August. Finally, those soldiers will get their thank you.
Kocian estimates more than 200 floats are registered for the parade. He is expecting more than 400 Vietnam veterans to join the event.
"They've been waiting for it," Kocian said. "This has turned into a major, major deal."
The parade marks the day Manuel flew home from Marble Mountain 41 years ago. Although his health keeps him from walking the parade route, he will ride in a car as the grand marshal.
"I wanted to march," Manuel said. "I'm a soldier."