By Yepoka Yeebo
MANHATTAN — Sammy Vasquez welled up as he inspected the young ROTC corps guarding the wreaths in Madison Square Park on Thursday.
The 80-year-old Korean war veteran didn't think he'd ever see the day when his service would be finally recognized.
"All my friends are dead now," said Vasquez of his army buddies. "I'm the only one who saw this."
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Korean war, whose veterans were not given the ticker-tape welcome home others received.
This year's Veteran's Day Parade aimed to turn that around, as thousands of service men and women marched down Fifth Avenue, with a special focus on veterans of Korea.
Salvatore Scarlato of the Korean War Veteran's Association said he had seen the fruits of their sacrifice first hand, barely recognizing the country he had fought for.
"We were walking in the heart of Seoul and I thought I was down 42nd Street," he said, before presenting a Korean General with a painting that symbolized the bond between the two countries.
Korean War veteran Rep. Charles Rangel joined Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Gov. David Paterson, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and City Comptroller John Liu at a wreath laying ceremony at the Eternal Light Monument in Madison Square Park and a 21-gun salute before marching in the parade.
"Our freedom is so rich that we often gave to pay for it with the lives of the greatest among us," said Paterson, who said he had instituted a policy of flying state flags at half mast every time a New Yorker was killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Since September 11, 2001, 88 New Yorkers have lost their lives fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"These are the people that exemplify the best of America," said Bloomberg, who promised his administration would continue to find better ways to serve veterans.
The parade is the biggest in the country, with roughly 3,000 active servicemen and women and 20,000 others will marching in the parade, which started at East 26th Street and worked it's way up Fifth Avenue to 56th Street.
Thousands lined Fifth Avenue to cheer and yell "Thank you."
At the Veterans Day breakfast at Gracie Mansion Thursday morning, Bloomberg announced the appointment of Terrance C. Holliday as Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Veterans’ Affairs.
Holliday, a retired US Air Force colonel, is expected to focus on the influx of veterans returning to New York from Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are currently roughly 240,000 veterans and 6,000 active reservists, soldiers and National Guard members living in the five boroughs.