By Sarah Portlock
Navy veterans Milaina Jacques and Shawna Lee knew they wanted to come to the annual Veterans Day Parade along Fifth Avenue — the only question was, what would they wear?
Jacques, 25, and Lee, 24, met aboard the USS Harry S. Truman during their first deployment in 2005 in the Persian Gulf and became fast friends. They soon discovered that they both were from Brooklyn — Jacques lives in Crown Heights, Lee in Flatbush — and loved fashion.
“On the ship, we would be out to sea and plan our future,” Jacques said. “We were both into fashion and we both wanted to go to F.I.T,” the Fashion Institute of Technology. They bonded while admiring the local fashions they saw in Dubai, London, and Paris.
But military uniforms don’t allow for much personal style, and the girls tried their best. Lee said she would paint her nails bright colors or dye her hair, but her supervisors would make her take it off. The parade was their chance to make their uniforms more stylish.
Early Wednesday morning, Lee and Jacques rose and pinned their Good Conduct and National Defense medals and ribbons, among others, to their own navy blue blazers and paired it with tight pants, black boots, and bright handbags. At one point, Jacques considered wearing her “cruise jacket,” the bomber-style jacket with patches for the wearer’s ship, wars fought, ports entered, and years fighting, but there was a catch.
“Mine is red and I didn’t have anything to match it,” she said.
It was the first parade for both girls, who were always deployed on past Veterans Days. In September, they enrolled in Kingsborough Community College in Manhattan Beach — “to get all the general requirements out of the way,” Lee explained, before applying to F.I.T. — and were invited to ride in the City University of New York-wide float along the parade route up Fifth Avenue, from 25th to 56th streets.
Jacques and Lee arrived at the CUNY meeting point at West 29th Street at 10 am, and, by noon, nearly 100 students and staffers were milling about, catching up with fellow soldiers and taking pictures with the bright blue and white CUNY flatbed truck. Jacques was missing art class, sociology, English and history to attend the parade, but secured an official letter from CUNY excusing her for the day. There are at least 250 veterans who attend Kingsborough, according to the school’s veterans affairs coordinator, Peaches Diamond.
“I’m very excited to be here,” Jacques said, tightening her leopard-print scarf against the brisk November wind. “It’s to celebrate what we’ve done, and it’s reminiscing to see all the vets who know what we did. When you come home, friends don’t really know what you did.”
Lee said the day was her way of supporting friends who are still on active duty, but wasn’t sure if she would come until she watched on TV the funerals for 13 soldiers killed in the mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas last week.
“I may not have known them personally, but it’s still sad when a life is lost,” she said, acknowledging that Jacques gave her a push, too.
At 12:45, the truck hauling the CUNY float revved its engine and turned the corner to Fifth Avenue. Jacques and Lee were on a top level and beamed as they saw the spectators lined up, clapping as they passed and holding signs that said simply, “Thank you.” The girls cheered and waved their flags fanatically.
When the float passed the New York Public Library, a parade emcee barked into a bullhorn, “And here’s CUNY!” Jacques and Lee threw their heads back and cheered even louder when he mentioned Kingsborough.
By 1:50, the truck arrived at 56th Street, the official end of the parade. Jacques and Lee were beaming.
“I want to do it again!,” Jacques said twice. “It felt like when we man the rails,” she added, referring to the Navy tradition of sailors lining up along a ship’s railings when it enters a port.
“It makes you feel proud that you served your country,” she added. “I didn’t expect a lot of people to be clapping and cheering for us, and to see old veterans gathering and all the kids cheering us on.”
Lee looked expectantly at Jacques.
“I’m definitely glad I came,” she said. “Thanks for convincing me.”
Meanwhile, in Brooklyn Heights…
At Cadman Plaza Park, a young man stood staring up at the 24-foot tall memorial wall that honors those from Brooklyn who served in World War II. The wall is flanked on each side by a giant stone sculpture—one is a male warrior bearing a sword, the other a woman holding a child. The figures are meant to represent victory and family.
The man stood with his two young daughters at his side. One gripped his hand as he read aloud part of the engraved inscription on the monument wall:
TO THE HEROIC MEN AND WOMEN OF THE BOROUGH OF BROOKLYN WHO FOUGHT FOR LIBERTY IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR
“That’s my grandpa,” he told his daughters proudly. “Do you understand? Daddy’s dad’s dad.”