Thousands Line Downtown Streets To Welcome Home Iraq War Veterans

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It started as an idea on Facebook.  But a grassroots effort with hardly any funding made history Saturday.  St. Louis pulled off America's first parade welcoming our military men and women home from Iraq.

“I woke up this morning and I was like, `It’s here!  Today is here, it’s a wonderful day for St. Louis, a history making day,” said LaDonna Appelbaum.  She is not a veteran.  Her husband isn’t either.  But together with Craig Schneider, these St. Louis friends did something no other city in America has done. They organized the “Welcome Home The Heroes From Iraq” parade.

The sun shined brightly, warming the crowd along Market Street.  An estimated 100,000 people gathered there, exuding gratitude.  The military men and women heard it and felt it.

“You know the greatest generation in World War II, they had the welcome homes, they had the big city parades, and although we’re not the greatest generation we certainly pulled our weight,” said Army Major Rick Radford.  “And now we are getting a true welcome home from St. Louis.”

For a few hours, St. Louis felt like the center of American patriotism, pride, and grief.

“This is my son, he was killed in Iraq on April 10, 2009,”said Ed Forrest, Senior, pointing to a photo of his son, Sgt. Edward Forrest.  Forrest, Sr. wiped tears as he talked of his boy.

“I’m proud of him.  I call him the world’s greatest hero, and I’m very proud of him,” he said.  Edward Forrest, Jr. was from Fenton.  After his death, his father moved to the state of Washington.  He flew home just to see this parade.

The photo Forrest had pointed to was on the tailgate of Martin Harris’s pickup truck, which was in the parade.  In the bed were American flags and flags from each branch of the military.  And on the tailgate near Forrest was a photo of Harris’s son.  He is still serving.

“He’s getting ready for his fifth deployment,” said Harris.

Saturday, St. Louis saluted them all.  A photo of Major Radford taken when he was leaving Lambert airport after his final deployment inspired the logo for this history making event.  It depicted a military man, holding his daughter’s hand.

“Any time I see that picture or that logo it brings me back,” he said, “but I’ve got to tell you that on this last deployment, when they told us were over American soil, you could have dropped me in any city because I was home. You know, that’s what America is to me is home.”

Veterans from all wars joined in the parade.  Aubrey Young served in the Marines during Vietnam.  “I would do it again,” he said.  “If I was called up I’d do it again, because I love my country, I love America.”

As Harris was getting in his truck to get in line for the parade, he thought hard for a moment.  “If we could, I’d like to see all our boys home, even the gentlemen in cemeteries overseas,” he said.  “I know that’s not possible.  But I’d like to see every one of them back here safe on this soil where they belong.”

A veterans resource village was held at Union Station following the parade. The village featured opportunities and tools available to veterans and their families as they transition to civilian life.

But organizers who dreamed up Saturday’s parade aren't stopping. They have laid down a challenge to the nation to raise funds to help veteran service organizations and they want to do it by Super Bowl Sunday.

Meredith Knopp with The Mission Continues announced, “Between now and February 5th at midnight we are challenging America to raise seven million dollars in seven days.”

Fifty percent of the dollars will go to The Mission Continues for their programs nationwide serving and supporting our programs for veterans.  The other fifty percent of the money will be distributed to The Welcome Home Foundation and they will be giving this money to various veterans’ service organizations across the country.

Website: Mission Continues Welcome Home Challenge

Website: Welcome Home The Heroes Day