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A parade of gratitude.

Byline: Jim Feehan The Register-Guard

Last year in the days leading up to Veterans Day, Alan Ezelle of Springfield was dodging hostile fire near Baghdad, Iraq, prior to departing on a three-day leave.

On Sunday, the only thing Sgt. 1st Class Ezelle was dodging was a few rain puddles as he led his troops from Charlie Company of the 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry, during the Lane County Veterans Day parade in Eugene.

Ezelle's 30-member platoon and other members of the Cottage Grove-based 162nd Infantry returned from Iraq in April. Marching along the 1 1/2 -mile parade route Sunday, the platoon was warmly received by hundreds of flag-waving well-wishers who lined the route and shouted "Thank you" and "God bless you."

A year ago, Ezelle barely escaped with his life.

On his last patrol before his scheduled leave, Ezelle was involved in a firefight with Iraqi insurgents in a residential alley in Baghdad. When he returned to the patrol base, his unit received a barrage of mortar and rocket-propelled grenade fire.

Undaunted, he made a treacherous trip down the main road to Baghdad Airport, where he hopped on a waiting C-130 transport plane. Shortly after takeoff, the plane took evasive maneuvers after it was fired upon by a Russian SA-7 anti-aircraft missile.

"As an infantryman for 17 years, I never felt so helpless," said Ezelle, an active-duty soldier who said he's grateful to be home - and for the outpouring of support during the parade.

"We're being honored with a huge amount of recognition," he said.

The sixth annual event, sponsored by the Lane County Veterans Day Parade Association, had 42 entries, down from 62 the year before, organizers said. Some veterans and others expressed disappointment at the smaller number of entrants and modest number of parade-watchers.

But parade organizer Dan Rupe said the crowd size seemed larger than past years, with many thrilled to be able to welcome returning veterans from the ongoing Iraq war.

In addition to several veterans groups, parade participants included a Civil War re-enactment troupe, the Eugene Highlanders Pipe Band and the Green Garter Band, a 13-member contingent of the University of Oregon Marching Band performing on a flatbed truck.

Sallylou Bonzer, a World War II nurse who landed at Normandy, France, four days after D-Day in 1944, served as grand marshal.

Besides the Iraq war veterans, the parade featured soldiers from the Persian Gulf War, Vietnam, Korea and World War II.

Ken Hatlelid, 85, of Eugene, wore his Army uniform from World War II.

A shipyard worker in Portland, Hatlelid enlisted in the Army and served in an anti-tank division. A service patch on the left shoulder of his olive drab woolen uniform features a black panther crushing a tank.

"We had a pretty good record (of destroying German Panzer tanks)," said Hatlelid, who was in five major campaigns in Europe after D-Day.

Honoring veterans preserves a piece of our heritage, said Hatlelid's daughter, Jan Stafek of Eugene. "It's a piece of our history that young people need to know about," she said.

Among those young people: Daija Garcia, 8, of Eugene, who stood on a Lane Transit District bus shelter seat and waved a U.S. flag as the troops from Charlie Company passed.

"My dad's in the Army," she boasted. Her father, Staff Sgt. JonGarcia, began his second tour of duty in Iraq as part of the 101st Airborne, said Linda Garcia, Daija's grandmother and Jon's mother.

"It's important to show our support and respect for people who serve our country," she said.

One person who appreciated the gesture was Spc. Jay Leal of Eugene. On Aug. 10, 2004, Leal took a nickel-size piece of metal shrapnel in his left upper thigh from a mortar attack on the patrol base in Baghdad.

Leal has served five years in the Army National Guard and two years of active duty at Fort Campbell near Nashville, Tenn. He participated in Veterans Day parades while stationed in Tennessee, but Sunday's event was especially poignant for Leal of Junction City.

"This one's at home," he said. "It makes what you do gratifying."

CAPTION(S):

Sgt. 1st Class Alan Ezelle (right) calls the cadence Sunday as his platoon marches in the Lane County Veterans Day parade.
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Title Annotation:Holidays; Well-wishers line route to honor veterans from Lane County
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Nov 7, 2005
Words:707
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