ST. LOUIS - Looking around at the tens of thousands of people waving American flags and cheering, Army Maj. Rich Radford was moved that so many braved a cold January wind Saturday in St. Louis to honor people like him: Iraq war veterans.
The parade, borne out of a simple conversation between two St. Louis friends a month ago, was the nation's first big welcome home for veterans of the war since the last troops were withdrawn from Iraq in December.
"It's not necessarily overdue, it's just the right thing," said Radford, a 23-year Army veteran who walked in the parade alongside his 8-year-old daughter, Aimee, and 12-year-old son, Warren.
Radford was among about 600 veterans, many dressed in camouflage, who walked along downtown streets lined with rows of people clapping and holding signs with messages including "Welcome Home" and "Thanks to our Service Men and Women." Some of the war-tested troops wiped away tears as they acknowledged the support from a crowd that organizers estimated reached 100,000 people.
Fire trucks with aerial ladders hoisted huge American flags in three different places along the route, with politicians, marching bands - even the Budweiser Clydesdales - joining. But the large crowd was clearly there to salute men and women in the military, and people cheered wildly as groups of veterans walked by.
That was the hope of organizers Craig Schneider and Tom Appelbaum. Neither man has served in the military, but came up with the idea after noticing there had been little fanfare for returning Iraq war veterans aside from gatherings at airports and military bases.
Appelbaum, an attorney, and Schneider, a school district technical coordinator, decided something needed to be done. So they sought donations, launched a Facebook page, met with the mayor and mapped a route. The grass roots effort resulted in a huge turnout despite raising only about $35,000 and limited marketing.