This weekend, Americans will honor soldiers who fought the country's wars, from the Somme to Kandahar. In Manassas, Va., 30 miles from the nation's capital, a parade on Saturday will honor veterans of another big war: the one that never happened.
The Cold War, from 1945 to the Soviet Union's breakup in 1991, was all about avoiding total nuclear war. It turned hot in Korea and Vietnam and sparked conflicts from Lebanon to Grenada. But soldiers on duty between flare-ups didn't do battle. When the war that wasn't came to an end, they got no monuments, no victory medals.
Nor can they join the American Legionundefinedwhich makes the parade of Cold War vets in Manassas a minor hot spot of its own.
The idea came out of Legion Post 10, a brick building with a long bar on Cockrell Road. The parade committee was in a room behind the bar one evening, talking protocol and Porta-Johns. Most were career retirees, yet 50 years after the Cuban missile crisis, the Legion's exclusion of Cold War short-timers was on their minds.
"You have to serve in a declared war," said Mark Meier, the post commander, a 44-year-old retired Marine. "That's our charter."
Bill Carruthers, 81, who flew in Vietnam as an Air Force colonel, opened his wallet and pulled out his Legion card. The eligibility periods were on the flip side: World War II, then a gap from 1946 to 1950. Korea, and a gap from 1955 to 1961. Vietnam, and another gap, from 1975 to 1982. Lebanon-Grenada, and a gap from 1984 to 1989. Finally, a short war in Panama, a gap and 22 straight years of membership from the 1990 Gulf War through the Global War on Terrorism, which isn't over yet.
Missing in action: 22 years of the Cold War.
Col. Carruthers said, "I have a son who served four years on a destroyer, chasing Russian subsundefinedafter Vietnam but before Grenada. He cannot be a Legionnaire, and that really ticks me off."
The committee members have marched plenty. They've pinned on campaign medals and expeditionary medals. If they served during the Korea or Vietnam "eras," they also got a National Defense Service Medal. So did anyone on duty during the Gulf War, or since Sept. 11, 2001undefinedwhether patrolling Anbar Province or a stateside train station.
There is no National Defense Service Medal for veterans of the Cold War. What were America's GIs up to? They went on alert when Egypt claimed the Suez Canal in 1956. They manned missile silos in North Dakota and piloted B-52s aimed at Soviet targets. They crewed nuclear-armed submarines and drove tanks in the Fulda Gap between West and East Germany. Some of what they did is still secret.
Don Levesque, a retired minister in Maine, was on leave in 1958 when 17 men in his Air Force unit were shot down and killed by a MiG while on a surveillance flight along the Armenian border.
"They call it peacetime," says Mr. Levesque, 74. "It wasn't. The Legion won't accept us. That's an affront. We never got a medal, and that's an affront, too."
Before he got discouraged and quit, Mr. Levesque belonged to American Cold War Veterans, a group trying to convince the Defense Department to award a medal to GIs like him. Bills for the creation of one have passed the House and Senate several times, only to wilt in committee. The Pentagon is opposed.
"The Cold War was not actually a war," wrote Elizabeth King, an assistant secretary of defense, in a 2011 letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee. A medal would overlap hot-war medals, she wrote. It would cost $440 million, and 35 million vets could claim it.
How many of them served only in those 22 gap years? "Maybe five million," says Frank Tims, 76, a retired defense analyst who is chairman of the veterans group. The Congressional Budget Office puts the likely number at 3.4 million and a medal's cost at $33 million.
"If it's about the money, I'll pay for my own medal," Frank Almquist says. He is 50 and drove Army tanks in the Fulda Gap early in the 1980s. "Just authorize it. I'll buy my own."
In 2006, Mr. Almquist, who lives in Illinois, complained to his then-senator, Barack Obama. Mr. Obama emailed back, calling a Cold War medal "appropriate," and hoping "that this impasse can be broken soon." It wasn't. Now the vets intend to ask him to create the medal by executive order.
They have campaigned, too, to have May 1 (communism's May Day) declared Cold War Victory Day. Maine and Kansas have done it. Independently, Matamoras, Pa., has put up a Cold War monument. San Diego had a Cold War parade in 2010. Omaha had one last July.
Now comes Manassas. Banners on street lamps here commemorate Civil War battles in the fields beyond its strip malls. At a burger joint with "Thank You Veterans" ketchup on the tables, a waitress was asked what the Cold War was. "Just...like...a war?" she said.
"People don't realize there was a Cold War," Russ Keating was saying at Legion Post 10. He is an Air Force vet, and president of the parade committee. "They grew up with Vietnam and the Gulf."
It was the Cold War's invisibility that led the post to sponsor the parade (a separate nonprofit is running it). At Legion headquarters in Indianapolis, a spokesman says the matter of membership "has been brought to our attention." But the leadership has no plan to change the rules. Even if it did, Congress would have to amend the charter to let any veterans come in from the cold.
Parade planning has taught the Manassas Legionnaires one other lesson about Cold War vets: They're hard to find. No database lists them. A sign-up sheet at the county fair went unsigned.
"We're having a hard time," said Mr. Meier, the post commander. "They don't want to participate in our parade."
Kevin Bryne, in charge of participation, got up and told him: "When you have veterans that can't be members of your organization, they don't rush out to help you."
Mr. Bryne, 53, is a security contractor. He never joined the military; his father did. So he joined the Sons of the Legion. Kurdt Carruthers, the colonel's Navy-veteran son, will never do that.
"I told my father," he says on the phone from his home near Fredericksburg, "if I can't join the Legion, the hell with it."
He is 56 and spent four years, 1977-81, hunting submarines aboard the USS Peterson. "Interacting with the Soviets wasn't fun and games," he says. "We weren't waving at them and sharing movies." He missed getting a National Defense Service Medal by months.
Kurdt Carruthers was expecting to drive to Manassas today for its Veterans Day Parade. But he won't take part. He'll be standing in the crowd, watching his dad march by.