Year after year after year, I've watched as people replace the three magic words with various saccharine substitutes: "Support the troops. Bring them home", "dissent is patriotic," - none of it feels like real affection to most of the roughly 50,000 who served and now live in San Francisco.
At Sunday's San Francisco Veterans Day Parade, just a few hundred casual onlookers showed up. That much is typical, has been ever since the Vietnam War. But what chilled me in reading SF Chronicle reporter Alejandro Martinez-Cabrera's event coverage was how only a 23-year-old ROTC volunteer Martinez interviewed expressed any regret at the low turnout.
According to parade chairman and Veterans Affairs Commission president Wallace Levin, one of the reasons behind the crowd-free parade is this city's cynicism about the military.
A decade ago, he says he hoped to confront a lack of "patriotism" in the city, maybe change some minds. But by coaching himself to see the bigger picture - that America is great because of dissenting cities like San Francisco - he's come to terms with the lack of affection in this city.
While shooting this video, however, I discovered that factors besides our "cynicism" might have been responsible for the low turnout, much of it related to the advance publicity of the event.
The Chronicle, in its advance brief on the event, reported the wrong time for the parade, which resulted in droves of people showing up at 1 p.m. for an 11 a.m. march, parade director Renie Champagne said.
Add to that that broadcast publicity was sparser this year, as at least one radio station dropped its sponsorship due to a lack of funding.
But the greatest publicity failure was online. Beyond a blog or two, there wasn't anything, presumably because Champagne was accustomed to mailing out press releases to the traditional media. "That's all that the public gets," he said.
The veterans sourced in the Chronicle's coverage of the parade, many of them older, either seemed wistfully trapped in the past - recalling vivid memories of triumph after WWII - or discounted the 2009 public's lack of appreciation. The parade marshal was even quoted as saying this year's parade was the best he could remember. Maybe he even meant it.
But beneath the code of silence, most vets in this city are secretly grieving over this. Purple Heart Navy legend Renie Champagne is one of them. He's directed the city's parade 59 years. After choosing his words carefully during an hour-long interview in his living room, the floodgates opened when we broached the concept of defending freedom. His eyes welled up. He went quiet. He looked me in the eyes, as if pleading, for the first time in the interview.