ST. LOUIS — They speak of their service matter-of-factly. Yes, the danger was always there. Yes, they saw horrific things. But they had a job to do, and they did it.
Even though the end of the Iraq War was celebrated Saturday with a parade that drew thousands to downtown St. Louis, many of the veterans who participated expect they may be redeployed to Afghanistan or somewhere else in the war on terror. Still, they appreciated the welcome home.
Here are a few of their stories.
Army Maj. Rich Radford had two long tours of duty in Iraq under almost constant threat of violence.
Radford, a combat engineer, spent 15 months on his first tour starting in January 2004, then about 10 months when he went back in September 2009. He earned the Bronze Star for his service.
"Every day we were in danger," Radford, 40, said, "because the Iraqis didn't like us, didn't want us in their country. They would sell out our positions, our missions."
Radford, a 23-year military veteran, marched in the parade with his two children, Aimee, 8, and Warren, 12. An image of the father and daughter upon his return home from the second tour of duty is emblazoned on T-shirts and posters associated with the parade. The image came from a photo taken by Radford's sister of Aimee, then 6, reaching up for her father's hand as family greeted him at Lambert Airport in St. Louis.
"She grabbed my hand and said, 'I missed you, Daddy,'" Radford recalled. "That's been my Facebook page picture ever since."
Air Force veteran Kevin Jackson got a nice welcome home with Saturday's parade, something his father never got for his service.
Don Jackson, 63, served in Vietnam. America still stings from the treatment of Vietnam veterans. There was no parade, no rally, when that conflict ended in the mid-1970s. Not that Don Jackson is complaining.
"I didn't need a parade. I was just glad to be home. This is for them," he said, nodding to his son and other young veterans.
Kevin Jackson, 33, is glad to be home, too. He has lost track of how many times he was sent overseas — three or four tours of duty in Iraq, four or five in Afghanistan.
In Iraq, Jackson's job was to teach Iraqis how to fly three C-130s planes that the U.S. donated to the Iraqi Air Force.
It wasn't easy. First, they had to teach them English. And turnover was constant.
"They'd be there for a couple of weeks then go home on break and not come back," Jackson said. "The bad guys would find out they were working with the Americans and threaten their families. So they wouldn't come back."
Gayla Gibson didn't know much about improvised explosive devices before the Air Force sent her to Iraq in July 2003. She spent the next four months as part of the first line of help for soldiers wounded by IED attacks.
"We saw some horrible things," she said. "Amputations. Broken bones. Severe burns from IEDs. It was pretty much every day."
Gibson and other medical technicians helped mend the wounded the best they could before they were moved to hospitals in Germany.
"We'd talk to them, try to comfort them," she said. "Mostly we wanted to stabilize them."
Gibson, 38, was thrilled that her hometown of St. Louis was the site of the first big parade to welcome home those who gave much for their country.
"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.