29 January 2012

St. Louis hosts huge Welcome Home parade for Iraq War vets

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A true grassroots event organized by two men, Craig Schneider and Tom Appelbaum, who simply came up with the idea that 'something needed to be done'. So they launched a Facebook page, met with the St. Louis mayor, mapped a route, and their efforts resulted in a huge turnout despite raising only about $35,000 in donations and limited marketing.

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Looking around at the tens of thousands of people waving American flags and cheering, Army Maj. Rich Radford was moved that so many braved a cold January wind Saturday in St. Louis to honor people like him: Iraq War veterans.

The parade, borne out of a simple conversation between two St. Louis friends a month ago, was the nation's first big welcome-home for veterans of the war since the last troops were withdrawn from Iraq in December.

"It's not necessarily overdue, it's just the right thing," said Radford, a 23-year Army veteran who walked in the parade alongside his 8-year-old daughter, Aimee, and 12-year-old son, Warren.

Radford was among about 600 veterans, many dressed in camouflage, who walked along downtown streets lined with rows of people clapping and holding signs with messages including "Welcome Home" and "Thanks to our Service Men and Women." Some of the war-tested troops wiped away tears as they acknowledged the support from a crowd that organizers estimated reached 100,000 people.

Fire trucks with aerial ladders hoisted huge American flags in three different places along the route, with politicians, marching bands - even the Budweiser Clydesdales - joining in. But the large crowd was clearly there to salute men and women in the military, and people cheered wildly as groups of veterans walked by.

Veterans came from around the country, and more than 100 entries - including marching bands, motorcycle groups and military units - signed up ahead of the event, Appelbaum said.

Schneider said he was amazed how everyone, from city officials to military organizations to the media, embraced the parade.

"It was an idea that nobody said no to," he said. "America was ready for this."

Several veterans of the Vietnam War turned out to show support for the younger troops. Among them was Don Jackson, 63, of Edwardsville, Ill., who said he was thrilled to see the parade honoring Iraq War veterans like his son, Kevin, who joined him at the parade. The 33-year-old Air Force staff sergeant said he'd lost track of how many times he had been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as a flying mechanic.

"I hope this snowballs," he said of the parade. "I hope it goes all across the country. I only wish my friends who I served with were here to see this."

Looking at all the people around him in camouflage, 29-year-old veteran Matt Wood said he felt honored. He served a year in Iraq with the Illinois National Guard.

"It's extremely humbling, it's amazing, to be part of something like this with all of these people who served their country with such honor," he said.

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