Israel Finkel never thought he’d see this happen in the United States.
But there it was, the red flag of his homeland, the hammer and sickle flapping alongside the red, white and blue.
And there he was at a Spokane celebration of Veterans Day on Saturday, absorbing respectful applause from U.S. war veterans.
The 75-year-old former Soviet Army captain held his hands together and repeatedly thanked everyone.
“I’m happy,” he said with his thick Russian accent, after a ceremony outside the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Spokane. “I’m very proud.”
Finkel and his wife, Sophia, have lived in Spokane for 19 years, but only recently has he felt comfortable discussing his military career with his neighbors.
“After the Cold War ended there is a different reality.” He smiled. “Now Clinton talks to Yeltsin like I talk to you. Now Americans start seeing that Russians fought very hard against Germans too.”
The Veterans Day ceremony marked the 50th anniversary of the Allied Forces victory in World War II. It honored U.S. servicemen as well as their foreign allies now living in the area - including the Finkels and a Canadian couple.
Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., delivered the keynote address to a crowd of about 200 people, the first time a congressman has spoken at the annual event in a decade.
“With all the problems that face our country,” Nethercutt said, “I think our future lies in remembering the past.”
The Spokane politician described a recent ceremony on the House floor in which veterans recounted their service, which he said vividly captured the “agony of war and the majesty of freedom.”
Nethercutt said the chamber was packed with teary lawmakers.
“We owe you so much,” Nethercutt told the veterans. “Thank you for your commitment to the cause of America. Thank you for giving us a future.”
Nethercutt’s words were followed by a jarring 21-gun salute by the Disabled American Veterans, Chapter 45. Then the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, in their white gloves and impeccable uniforms, lowered the flags and marched off in unison as the ceremony ended.
Afterward, veterans mingled at a reception with the hospital patients.
Finkel removed his leather coat and proudly displayed his three Soviet medals honoring his four years of service to a country that for 40 years was seen as the world’s number one threat to his adopted nation.
“I never imagined someone would call me” to attend a ceremony like this, he said, beaming.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo