ST. LOUIS — 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Louis friends a month ago, was the nation's first big welcome-home for veterans of the war since the last troops were withdrawn from Iraq in December.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.
That was the hope of organizers Craig Schneider and Tom Appelbaum. Neither man has served in the military but came up with the idea after noticing there had been little fanfare for returning Iraq War veterans aside from gatherings at airports and military bases. No ticker-tape parades or large public celebrations.
Appelbaum, an attorney, and Schneider, a school district technical coordinator, decided something needed to be done. So they sought donations, launched a Facebook page, met with the mayor and mapped a route. The grassroots effort resulted in a huge turnout despite raising only about $35,000 and limited marketing.
That marketing included using a photo of Radford being welcomed home from his second tour in Iraq by his then-6-year-old daughter. The girl had reached up, grabbed his hand and said, "I missed you, daddy." Radford's sister caught the moment with her cellphone camera, and the image graced T-shirts and posters for the parade.
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."
All that effort by her hometown was especially touching for Gayla Gibson, a 38-year-old Air Force master sergeant who said she spent four months in Iraq – seeing "amputations, broken bones, severe burns from IEDs" – as a medical technician in 2003.
"I think it's great when people come out to support those who gave their lives and put their lives on the line for this country," Gibson said.
With 91,000 troops still fighting in Afghanistan, many Iraq veterans could be redeployed – suggesting to some that it's premature to celebrate their homecoming. In New York, for example, Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently said there would be no city parade for Iraq War veterans in the foreseeable future because of objections voiced by military officials.
But in St. Louis, there was clearly a mood to thank the troops with something big, even among those opposed to the war.
"Most of us were not in favor of the war in Iraq, but the soldiers who fought did the right thing and we support them," said 72-year-old Susan Cunningham, who attended the parade with the Missouri Progressive Action Group. "I'm glad the war is over and I'm glad they're home."
Don Lange, 60, of nearby Sullivan, held his granddaughter along the parade route. His daughter was a military interrogator in Iraq.
"This is something everyplace should do," Lange said as he watched the parade.
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.