His mission: Salute veterans in big way

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Bill Dietzel has kept the regimen of a military man and, at 75, has the flat belly and straight posture to prove it. Mornings start with push-ups, sit-ups and a mile run -- the family dog, a Queensland heeler, tagging along.

Sweat wiped from his brow, Dietzel then often focuses on veterans issues. This time of year, that means planning and organizing the Fresno Veterans Day Parade.

Dietzel is from the bigger-is-better school of promotion. Under his leadership, the parade has grown from 2,000 participants in 2003 to the 9,000 expected to march Wednesday in downtown Fresno.

The 90th edition of the parade will honor the Navy, and Capt. James R. Knapp, the commanding officer at Lemoore Naval Air Station, is the grand marshal.

"The entire U.S. Navy will be there, hopefully," Dietzel says, laughing. "It will be the greatest parade on Earth."

The folks in charge of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade might disagree. But the Fresno parade is becoming a big deal beyond our city's borders, with television coverage on the Armed Forces Network and the Pentagon Channel.

"Last year, we received e-mail comments from people in 32 cities plus the [aircraft carriers] Carl Vinson and Theodore Roosevelt," Dietzel says.

Among those in this year's parade: Hmong Gen. Vang Pao and an estimated 600 Hmong army veterans. In addition, the five Clovis Unified high schools will form a single marching band of 500. They'll be joined by 25 other marching bands plus floats, military vehicles and military units.

"This is the first time since he came to the United States that Gen. Vang Pao has entered a parade, and he's really excited about it," Dietzel says. "This will be very powerful. His presence provides an opportunity to let the public know what the Hmong did for us in the Vietnam War, saving the lives of hundreds and hundreds of American fliers."

Combining the Clovis bands also is a first, according to Clovis North band director David Lesser, who previously directed Clovis West's band. Lesser says that the combined unit will play John Phillip Sousa's "Hands Across the Sea," but each school's drum line will take turns rapping out its own cadence.

"Our schools are competitive, but we wanted to come together to support the military," Lesser says. "We said, 'Let's do something big.' "

Dietzel says that it's important to publicly acknowledge the sacrifices that veterans have made -- and will continue to make -- to preserve America's freedoms.

"We have two wars that are on, and our young men and women are sacrificing every day with their lives," he says.

That point was driven home again last week at Fort Hood with shootings that killed 13 and wounded at least 29. The suspected gunman, Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, reportedly opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dietzel says that the Fort Hood victims will be honored with a moment of silence before the parade.


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