By JIM SALTER, Associated Press
ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Large crowds are gathering in downtown St. Louis to honor Iraq War veterans Saturday during the nation's first big welcome home parade since the last troops left the country in December.
Veterans dressed in camouflage lined up alongside military vehicles at the start of the parade, while organizers handed out small American flags to people along the route, many holding signs reading "Welcome Home" and "Thanks to our service men and women."
"It's not necessarily overdue, it's just the right thing," Maj. Rich Radford, a 23-year veteran of the Army who brought his family to the event, said moments before the parade began.
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.
"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."'
They sought donations, launched a Facebook page, met with the mayor and mapped a route. They eventually raised about $35,000, with more than half coming from Anheuser-Busch and the Mayflower moving company, which both have St. Louis ties.
With 91,000 troops still fighting in Afghanistan, many Iraq 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 marks the end of the Iraq War, all military personnel involved in post-Sept. 11 conflicts are being welcomed to take part, organizers said.
Radford, 40, said he served two tours in Iraq totaling about 25 months. When he came back from his second tour, 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 grazes T-shirts and posters for the parade, which is expected to attract thousands of people.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)