ST. LOUIS — Thousands of people lining downtown streets cheered wildly as veterans, some wiping away tears, marched through St. Louis on Saturday during the nation's first big welcome-home parade for Iraq War veterans.
Several hundred veterans, many dressed in camouflage, walked alongside military vehicles, marching bands and even the Budweiser Clydesdales. People in the crowd held signs reading "Welcome Home" and "God Bless Our Troops," and fire trucks with aerial ladders hoisted three huge American flags along the route.
"It's not necessarily overdue. It's just the right thing," said Maj. Rich Radford, who became a symbol of the event thanks to a photo of his young daughter taking his hand while welcoming him home from his second tour in Iraq in 2010.
Since the war ended, there has been little fanfare for returning veterans aside from gatherings at airports and military bases — no ticker-tape parades or large public celebrations — so two friends from St. Louis decided to change that.
They sought donations, launched a Facebook page, met with the mayor and mapped a route in a grass-roots effort that raised about $35,000. More than half came from Anheuser-Busch and the Mayflower moving company, which both have St. Louis ties.
On Saturday, the work paid off — and the biggest cheers clearly were for the veterans. People standing along the route waved small American flags and wildly cheered as groups of troops walked by, with some veterans wiping away tears as they acknowledged the support.
Gayla Gibson, a 38-year-old Air Force master sergeant, was proud that her hometown was the first to honor Iraq War veterans. Gibson spent four months there in 2003 working as a medical technician.
"We saw some horrible things," she said. "Amputations. Broken bones. Severe burns from IEDSs."
Gibson said she was moved by the turnout and the patriotic fervor.
"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," she added.
Radford, a 23-year Army veteran, served two tours in Iraq totaling about 25 months, never at ease.
"The Iraqis didn't like us, didn't want us in their country. They would sell out our positions, our missions. That invited danger every day," he said.
When he came back from his second tour, he said his then-6-year-old daughter Aimee reached up and grabbed his hand, saying simply: "I missed you, daddy." Radford's sister caught the moment with her camera, and that image now graces T-shirts and posters for the parade.
With 91,000 troops still fighting in Afghanistan, many of those 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 others wanted to hold a large, public event to say thanks. While the parade in St. Louis was held to mark the end of the Iraq War, all military personnel involved in post-Sept. 11 conflicts were welcomed to take part, organizers said.
"It struck me that there was this debate going on as to whether there should or shouldn't be a parade," Tom Appelbaum, one of the organizers, said ahead of the event. "Instead of waiting around for somebody somewhere to say, 'Yes, let's have a parade,' we said, 'Let's just do it.'"