Half an hour before state police troopers on horses clopped down Main Street in Washington to kick off the Washington County Veterans Day Parade, a crowd had already gathered around the event’s main attraction.
The 14-ton M3A1 Stuart tank may not have been the biggest vehicle in the parade in terms of height or width, but it still stood out like a sore thumb – or rather, like a WWII-era Army tank in 21st-century Washington.
“You don’t see this very often,” one paradegoer said. Actually, it was the first time this particular tank had made a public appearance in a parade. Parked beside Life Church, the tank was flanked by history buffs, gun enthusiasts and curious boys whose fathers lifted them up to get a better look at a real-life G.I. Joe accessory.
Rick Kline and Pat Nicholson, both co-owners of the tank and members of the First Frontier Mechanized Cavalry, drove and commanded the tank, respectively.
On learning how to drive the tank, Kline said, “It’s not easy. It’s a learning process,” and he has been practicing since July. Driving requires two hands, with levers on each side to control both sets of tracks, and a gear shift near the driver’s shoulder. It took some contorting to squeeze inside the tank, and Kline said he would be sure to drive slow with “no heroics” to avoid leaving tracks on the road.
Nicholson, on the other hand, hammed it up atop the tank, ducking in and out of the hatch, and yelling “Get down!” when the gun – no longer functional – swiveled to point into the crowd.
Children giggled, excited by the theatrics and the abundance of candy being thrown by local politicians. High school bands played patriotic tunes, and the crowd clapped in reverence of the various veteran groups that marched along the parade route.
Brig. Gen. Lewis G. Irwin, of McMurray, was the grand marshal of the parade. Irwin is a 1982 graduate of McGuffey High School and a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Irwin currently commands the 926th Engineer Brigade in Montgomery, Ala., and is an adjunct professor at the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute. He has served in Panama, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, Bosnia and Afghanistan.
“Words don’t express the commitment and the dedication and the devotion to America that Lew Irwin has shown,” the Rev. Roger R. Fischer said about Irwin during a luncheon at American Legion Post 175 in Washington before the parade.
During his address, Irwin discussed the history of America and said that not too long ago, this nation was just an idea, a “noble and radical experiment in self-governance,” which should not be taken for granted.
“There’s this sense today in America that’s America is monolithic, that it’s permanent – it was won, but it can’t be lost,” Irwin said. “And, I will tell you the reason we are here today to recognize the service of our veterans, and by extension the members of our law enforcement community, is because freedom is not free, and freedom is not guaranteed.”
Irwin said it is veterans who protect America and enable its citizens to remain free.
“It’s an honor for us today to be with so many who showed duty, honor and country,” Fischer said, concluding the luncheon. “We need to show it to our young people today.”