Since the Iraq War ended there has been little fanfare for the veterans returning home. No ticker-tape parades. No massive, flag-waving public celebrations.
So, two friends from St. Louis decided to change that. They sought donations, launched a Facebook page, met with the mayor and mapped a route. On Saturday, hundreds of veterans are expected to march in downtown St. Louis in the nation's first big welcome home parade since the last troops left Iraq in December.
"It struck me that there was this debate going on as to whether there should or shouldn't be a parade," said Tom Appelbaum, one of the organizers. "Instead of waiting around for somebody somewhere to say, 'Yes, let's have a parade,' we said, 'Let's just do it.'"
Appelbaum, a 46-year-old lawyer, and Craig Schneider, a 41-year-old school technology coordinator, said they were puzzled by the lack of celebrations marking the war's end. But, they wondered, if St. Louis could host thousands of people for a parade after their beloved Cardinals won the World Series, why couldn't there be a party for the troops who put their lives on the line?
The effort got help with donations from two corporations with St. Louis connections — $10,000 from Anheuser-Busch and $7,500 from the Mayflower moving company. Individual donations have boosted the project's total budget to about $35,000. By comparison, more than $5 million was spent two decades ago on New York's welcome-home parade for Gulf War veterans who helped drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.
Ticker-tape salutes to returning troops are part of the American culture, including parades in many cities honoring veterans of World War I and World War II.
Since the end of the latest war in Iraq, there have only been small events at military posts, gatherings of families at airports and a low-key appearance by President Barack Obama at Fort Bragg, N.C., a base that endured more than 200 deaths from fighting in the war.
In St. Louis, Army Spc. James Casey appreciates the handshakes he's gotten at local and often informal observances of his 11.5 years with the Army Reserve and three tours in Iraq, which included the 2003 invasion. But the 29-year-old father of a year-old daughter relishes attending the St. Louis parade he considers "the proper welcoming home we all know we deserve."
He hopes larger U.S. cities follow suit.
"For the longest time, St. Louis has been the east-meets-west society, so I'm not surprised it's happening here. Hopefully, everybody sees what we're doing and grabs onto this," Casey said Friday. "Something like this — where it's showing support for those that have served — is not just a thank you. It's an embracing of the sacrifice so many Americans have made."
Celebrating the end of the Iraq War hasn't been as simple as the outpourings after the world wars, said Wayne Fields, professor of English and American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. 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.
"We're not celebrating the end of a war the way we were with V-E Day or V-J Day (after World War II)," Fields said. "Part of what this is trying to do is recognize the special service of those who were there even though we can't declare a victory over a clearly identified enemy."
In May 2003, then-President George W. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier to hail the end of major combat operations in Iraq. Behind him during that speech was a banner that read, "Mission Accomplished," yet U.S. troops remained in Iraq for 8 ½ more years.
Even some of the festivities in St. Louis will serve as a reminder that Bush launched the Iraq War as part of the larger war on terror following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
As part of the weekend, a "Reading of the Fallen" will begin at 9:11 p.m. Friday at Soldiers Memorial downtown. It will continue until the names of the approximate 6,500 Americans killed since the attacks are read.
"Veterans have sacrificed so much for the safety and well-being of St. Louisans," Mayor Francis Slay said. "This is a chance to demonstrate our appreciation for them."
City officials agreed to waive permit fees and allow use of streets for the parade from the heart of downtown along Market Street to Union Station, the former train station that is now a shopping center and hotel. A "Resource Village" will be set up there that will include food, music and entertainment but will also connect returning vets with organizations to help ease transition to civilian life.
Organizers expect about 100 parade entries — floats, marching bands, first-responders, veterans groups. Appelbaum said that while the parade marks the end of the Iraq War, any military personnel involved in post-Sept. 11 conflicts are welcome.
Appelbaum has no idea how many people will turn out to cheer on the troops but said response has been overwhelming despite the lack of any substantial marketing.
"It's significant that this is strictly a grassroots effort, and coming out of the heartland of the U.S., I think it really says something," he said.