St. Louis hosts first major parade celebrating Iraq War's end

Saturday, January 28, 2012 | 4:02 p.m. CST; updated 9:26 p.m. CST, Saturday, January 28, 2012
Members of the Mizzou Student Veterans Association walk with The Electrical Board of Missouri and Illinois float. The MSVA is a social and advocacy group at MU helping student veterans transition from service life to student life.

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.'"


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Delcia Crockett January 29, 2012 | 12:51 p.m.

@"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."

I was so glad to see this in the Missourian. I have wondered why the media did not cover this big event in a big way to honor those getting to finally return home. That might be why so little reacted to give parades and celebrations upon the return.

Though it was in the national news, just before Christmas, and it was just about "shouting time" for all of us who have been praying for the return of our soldiers, as well as the completion of the task at hand in Iraq, the news coverage was giving same stories over and over about events not nearly as timely, while putting this one on the back burner to disappear from the public altogether. This was like a kick in the teeth to those who so waited and prayed and anticipated the final day of return. There should have been feature stories of local military returning, over and over again. This was a momentous event in so many lives, as well as in comtemporary history-making.

For their dedication of service, especially so in the light of those who gave the supreme sacrifice in Iraq, we should have been dancing in the street all over America at this return. At last, mission accomplished!

Salute to those who served, all the years through this war, as well as salute to those who gave up loved ones in loss of life, and to those who were injured throughout.

You are greatly appreciated for your service to our country.

Thank you, St. Louis, for acknowledging this with the parade. How awesome that you would show this honor/respect to those who served, by welcoming them home in such a display of gratitude for "Job well done!"- many of whom went beyond the call of duty, and went back several times to risk their lives for service to this country.

Thank you, veterans- you are to be commended for that. We honor you!

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams January 29, 2012 | 3:10 p.m.


I completely agree. If only all those yard signs saying "We support our troops!" had instead said "We're proud of you!"

One of those slogans has multiple meanings, but the other has only one.

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