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Advocates Question Whether Veterans Day Promotions Have Gotten Off Track


It's Veterans Day, and one way you can tell that is by all the commercials, stores and restaurants advertising for veterans free breakfast, free doughnuts, free wedding gowns, a free pizza with a purchase of a pizza of equal or greater value. But as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, some veterans are asking if the country's goodwill on this day could be shifted in a different direction.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: You might have seen this ad during the World Series.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: America, this Veterans Day, let's shine a light on our veterans by changing one light to green, the color of hope.

LAWRENCE: That's Wal-Mart's green light bulb campaign, one of dozens of corporate ad blitzes this year featuring vets. It's nice, says Iraq veteran Mary Beth Bruggeman. However...

MARY BETH BRUGGEMAN: This effort to give thanks is so much appreciated but a little bit misdirected.

LAWRENCE: Bruggeman is with The Mission Continues, a group that connects veterans with volunteer work. Bruggeman says she'd like to see some of the free meals maybe go to the homeless. Instead of boarding the plane early with the passengers who need extra assistance, she'd rather be asked to help in case of an emergency landing.

BRUGGEMAN: Ten, 12 years into this war, what we truly need is to be told that we're still needed in this country and to be asked to lead again in our communities. So many - so many difficult, pressing challenges in our country, and veterans are perfectly poised to be at the - on the frontlines of those challenges.

LAWRENCE: Some of those pressing issues do involve veterans, like the high rate of veteran suicide or the ongoing scandals at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Solving those problems is harder than screwing in a light bulb, says Paul Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

PAUL RIECKHOFF: We don't need any more green light bulbs. And we don't need pandering. We don't need yellow-ribbon, bumper-sticker patriotism. We need a real strategy and concrete support not just for Veterans Day but for decades.

LAWRENCE: Rieckhoff is based in New York, home of the big Veterans Day Parade. But yesterday, he and a much smaller group of vets met at New York's City Hall. After a year of intense lobbying, the city will create its own Department of Veteran Services, something that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio had opposed, saying it was unnecessary. Rieckhoff spoke to the crowd. He says the new department will streamline services for veterans in the nation's largest city.


RIECKHOFF: Our friends are right now fighting and dying in Afghanistan and Iraq. We are not going to wait around for bureaucracy. We are going to fix the system. Stand with us. Work in a bipartisan way. And we can accomplish anything. We're not broken. We're not victims. We're leaders.


LAWRENCE: It's still not clear how the new department will tame the red tape, but it's an important step, said Vietnam veteran Fang Wong with the American Legion.


FANG WONG: How many Vietnam veterans we have here? Quite a few.


LAWRENCE: His generation of veterans didn't have parades or ad campaigns when they came home from war, he said. But he'd rather have concrete steps, anyhow.


WONG: This is the parade that we've been waiting for, for 45 years or so. The creation of the department is better than the parade because it speaks with action.

LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.