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Mr. President: Americans Want to Welcome Home the Troops, Too

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A White House Dinner symbolizes a grateful country--but it's only a start.


In December, after eight years of combat, 32,000 Americans wounded, and 4,400 lives lost, the President told America that the Iraq war was over. And civilians nationwide began organizing parades--most notably, one for 100,000 people in St. Louis. Now, the President and First Lady are planning a historic White House Dinner -- called "A Nation's Gratitude" -- for 200 Iraq veterans and their spouses from all 50 states. It's the First Family's way of saying "thank you" for their service and sacrifice. 

The Pentagon is billing the black-tie dinner as symbolic of a grateful country -- and it is. It's a wonderful gesture from the First Family and an incredible honor for the few invited to attend. But unfortunately, one million vets of Iraq can't pack into the East Room on February 29th. So the question we have to ask is: what about the rest of them? And what about all the American civilians who can't attend to say "thank you"? Shouldn't the entire nation be included in "A Nation's Gratitude"?

We think so. That's why today IAVA is proposing a deadline: we're asking President Obama to convene a meeting of mayors nationwide to organize a National Day of Action -- Operation Welcome Home. The goal? To turn America's growing goodwill toward our Iraq veterans into concrete action. The one million veterans of Iraq represent the less than one percent. And all Americans want an outlet to honor their service while raising awareness and directing critical local resources to veterans and their families for the transition home.

As history closes the chapter on Iraq, Americans from all corners of the country want to respect all those who served there, remember those who died, and respond to the challenges they're now facing at home from record unemployment to troubling suicide rates. It's time for all of us, from the President to the Pentagon to mayors and ordinary citizens nationwide, to work together to channel our collective goodwill, support and momentum to deliver critical resources to the veterans' community. Instead of having scattered parades all year long, we should work together -- civilians and veterans united -- to create one historic day of action: parades, memorials and service fairs in cities and towns large and small. 

Just a few weeks ago, St. Louis was the first city in the nation to welcome home our Iraq veterans. It set the national benchmark not simply because it turned out 100,000 Americans in support of Iraq veterans, but because it was a multifaceted coming home event. The highly impactful, grassroots, civilian-led parade gave Americans a chance to say "thank you" to the troops. It was awesome--and it went a step beyond symbolic. It opened with a sober Memorial Ceremony to honor our dead and it ended with a Veterans Resource Village to connect local St. Louis veterans with critical employment, education and mental health resources. It was smart, popular, bi-partisan and even fun. 

Since then, Douglas Wilson, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, has stated repeatedly that the Pentagon supports the St. Louis model. In a recent interview on The Rachel Maddow Show, Wilson said "the kinds of things that we saw in St. Louis are the kinds of things we love to see around the country." He and the Pentagon brass also support the President's White House Dinner. Yet, they have strongly told Mayor Bloomberg "no" to a citywide event in New York. (Insert head-scratching here.)

Like any other hometown, New York City loves its vets too. And patriotic civilian leadership from both parties is asking the question: If our NY Giants deserve a parade, don't our Iraq vets? These leaders want to give Operation Welcome Home the national momentum it deserves too. Folks ranging from former Mayor Ed Koch to City Councilman Vincent Ignizio (R-SI) to Speaker Christine Quinn (D-3) support a citywide celebration. Councilman Ignizio started this whole push for a Big Apple Parade way back in December. As one little girl from Staten Island sums it up, people just want to connect and say thank you. So what's the harm in that? 

The idea has caught fire. And we've addressed almost every single argument against it. Across the country, ordinary Americans are joining the guys in St. Louis to coordinate their own events. In San Antonio, Richmond and a dozen other cities, they're planning parades and service fairs for their local Iraq vets. Lead by civilians, not veterans themselves, this welcome home movement is gaining steam by the day -- reinforcing the urgency to coordinate our efforts and resources nationally. The American people are speaking. Loudly. And it's time for the Pentagon and the President to lead, follow or get out of the way.

At the end of the day, we all want to welcome home America's veterans in the most positive, meaningful and impactful ways possible. We know parades and a White House Dinner are not enough. Not even close. But if we're smart and proactive as a country, we'll rally the goodwill that started in St. Louis to spotlight and deliver community resources nationwide now--instead of delaying until history closes the chapter on both wars. A National Day of Action for those who have already returned should pave the way for those yet to come home, while activating the country around our entire community for years to come.  Americans are keenly aware of the lessons after the Vietnam War. They know that honoring and supporting our troops 10 years after a war ends is a disgrace. We need to show those that have fought for our country that we have their backs now. So if the Pentagon says a national event isn't an option now, then they need to tell Americans when.  None of us have a crystal ball--combat operations might not end until 2013--at the earliest. So we're looking to our leaders for some productive ways to organize and activate locally in the meantime. 

No matter the front they fought on, our returning veterans are coming home today to entirely new battles -- against unemployment, invisible mental health injuries, and bureaucratic red tape around their hard-earned benefits. The end of the Iraq war has increased the demand within our community for services, support and understanding of the issues our veterans face. A National Day of Action could raise the standard of awareness and resources to support our veterans' community on the scale we've seen for other causes like Hope for Haiti, Live 8 and America: A Tribute to Heroes after 9/11.

In a perfect world, every Iraq vet could visit the White House for a black-tie dinner and every day would be Veterans Day--but that's not possible. But replicating St. Louis at scale, a demonstration of our entire nation's gratitude is possible. And now is the time for the President and the Pentagon to listen to the American people who want to help. Let's channel that unprecedented goodwill and gratitude into something practical and lasting, in a way that benefits our veterans and their families for years to come. 

If we do it right, it will do more than just help our veterans. It might just help unite our divided country. And that's a mission all veterans would be proud to be a part of.   

Paul Rieckhoff is the Founder and Executive Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and the author of Chasing Ghosts. Crossposted at www.iava.org.