Even so, many Democrats and anti-war voters, like Natalie and Lorin Wilkins, believe Kerry would be slower to send America's sons and daughters into war because he has firsthand knowledge of combat. "He was in a war," Natalie says. "He knows what it's like to see people killed. He knows what it's like to lose friends. I think John Kerry would not be so hasty to sacrifice lives."

In fact, with the Iraq war the centerpiece of the presidential race, the military resumes of both candidates have become subjects of scrutiny and cast the spotlight for a time on another controversial conflict: Vietnam.

Both the Wright and Wilkins families have direct ties to the Vietnam War.

Jimmy's father, Austrian-born Ed Wright - who came to the United States at age 13 after a U.S. serviceman married his mother, Josefa - did two tours of duty in Vietnam in food services. He dropped out of school to join the Army at age 17, and doesn't talk much about his war experiences, except to say that it instilled in him a sense of support for the nation's leader - no matter what.

"It doesn't matter who the commander in chief was or is, my duty is to back my commander in chief whether he's right or wrong," says Ed, a heavyset 54-year-old with a thin gray mustache. "Will I vote for George Bush? You damn right. I feel what he's done is the right thing, even though we lost our son because of the decision he made. I can't blame President Bush for Jimmy's death, no matter what anybody says."

He and his sons don't like what they've heard about Kerry's Vietnam experience, especially the allegations made by a group of Kerry opponents that the former Swift boat commander exaggerated his war wounds to win three Purple Hearts. Even Jimmy's youngest brother, Mark, 22, a tile-setter who says little about the presidential race, has this to offer: "I don't like John Kerry. I think he's a liar."

Natalie Wilkins, whose ex-husband and brother both served in Vietnam, recalls opening the morning paper day after day during the Vietnam years to see the faces of her friends, classmates and neighbors among the fallen. Now she fears history is repeating itself.

"It's going to be another Vietnam war. It's one I don't believe we can win."

Decades after Vietnam, she sits in the living room of her '50s-style rancher with a newspaper on her lap that contains three full pages of head shots of soldiers killed in Iraq in July and August, including the one her eye finds in an instant.

"There he is," she says of her oldest child, a light-skinned black man with his mother's big eyes and a gentle smile. "Heaven has a new angel."

As grand marshals of this year's Harvest Home parade, a 145-year-old end-of-summer tradition in the small western Ohio town of Cheviot, Ed and Barbara Wright are taking their places atop a shiny red convertible. Behind them are Eddie and his wife, Melissa, riding in the beige Porsche that Eddie turned into a sort of memorial to his brother, with an air-brushed photo of Jimmy painted on the hood, camouflage design painted on the body, a decorative license plate that says "FREEDOM" and a Bush/Cheney sign in the windshield.

Just before the parade begins, an old man with no left hand approaches.

"I'm a World War II guy," the man, wearing a Veterans of Foreign Wars cap, says.

He takes Ed Wright's two beefy hands in his one and holds onto them for a while. No words seem necessary.

Then a Scout troop leader comes up to Ed and Barbara. "Are you the parents of this young man?" he asks, seeing the sign, "In Memory of Spc. James C. Wright, 4th Infantry Division."

"Thank you for your son's service to our country," the troop leader, trailed by a trio of 8-year-old boys, tells the couple. "I hope those people over there are living in a free country five years from now, and they get to do this kind of thing, too. So thank you very much."

The parade, with Jimmy Wright's family in the lead, proceeds for about a mile, past the Land of Oz bridal outlet, past Schinkal's poultry, the Starmaker Dance Studio and Laundry Land.

All along the parade route, spectators stand up from their lawn chairs and applaud as the family rolls by. They salute, give a thumbs-up or wave their flags as they whisper to one another, "Their son was killed in Iraq."

The signs of support, which are plentiful in some of these heavily Republican suburbs of Cincinnati, comfort the Wrights, whose tears still come easily and frequently one year later.

Like Natalie and Lorin Wilkins, the two generations of Wrights have had a hard time letting go. Ed still finds himself behind closed doors playing and replaying two taped messages his son left on his answering machine in the weeks before he was killed in a firefight in Tikrit.