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 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Louis friends a month ago, was the nation's first big welcome-home for veterans of the war since the last troops were withdrawn from Iraq in December.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 in their camouflage uniforms, who walked along downtown streets lined with rows of people clapping and holding signs with messages such as "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. Politicians, marching bands -- even the Budweiser Clydesdales -- joined in. But the crowd was there for those in the military, and people cheered wildly as groups of veterans walked by.
That had been the hope of organizers Craig Schneider and Tom Appelbaum. Though not vets themselves, they 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. No ticker-tape parades or large public celebrations.
Appelbaum, a lawyer, and Schneider, a school district technical coordinator, decided to do something. They sought donations, made a Facebook page, met with the mayor and mapped a route. The grassroots effort resulted in a huge turnout despite having raised only about $35,000 and with limited marketing.