ST. LOUIS• Thousands of people waved U.S. flags and shouted "thank you" Saturday during a downtown parade to welcome home Iraq war veterans.
Many spectators wore layers of jackets and huddled under blankets on the cold, sunny day as they cheered on veterans of recent U.S. wars in the first parade of its kind in a major U.S. city.
"It makes me proud to be an American," said Trisha Thompson, a member of the Army Reserves who served in Iraq in 2005 and 2006, after watching the parade finish near Union Station. "Even during hard times, there's still a spirit of unity."
Thompson and her husband, James Pena, also an Iraq veteran, watched with their 6-month-old son, Schuyler, well-covered in his stroller with blankets and a camouflage fleece hat. They both choked back tears as they explained how it felt to see so many people gathered in their honor.
"People have come to realize that you can definitely support the troops even if you don't support the war," Thompson said.
Army Lt. Col. Mike Fayette, who participated in the parade, approached co-organizer Craig Schneider afterward to thank him.
"When prosperous families, individuals and businesses step up to honor us, it makes what I do feel more relevant," said Fayette, who will retire next month after 30 years of service.
Fayette, who recently moved to Columbia, Mo., was injured by an improvised explosive device in Iraq in 2005. He remained there until 2006, when he returned to work at the Pentagon.
"I was overwhelmed by the genuineness of their support," he said of the crowd.
"This (parade) showed that things get accomplished when you have a sense of urgency," said Tom Appelbaum, a lawyer from Creve Coeur and one of the parade organizers. "Now we're gonna take this on the road."
He and Schneider, a technology coordinator for the St. Charles School District, dreamed up the parade over dinner in December. They started a Facebook group, which quickly grew to more than 5,000 members, and used social media and word-of-mouth to drum up support for the plan.
Now they hope to start a fundraising campaign called the "Welcome Home the Heroes Challenge." They want to raise $7 million by next Sunday, the day of the Super Bowl.
Their motto for the parade and the fundraising effort was displayed on the T-shirts they wore on Saturday: "Don't tell us it's impossible."
The money will be split between The Mission Continues, a St. Louis-based nonprofit group that connects veterans with volunteer opportunities and helped coordinate the parade, and the Welcome Home Foundation, a group Appelbaum and Schneider created to distribute funds to veterans organizations.
Not all of the families in the parade were welcoming loved ones home. Susan and Jim Jacobs of Ballwin marched with about 10 Gold Star families, who have lost relatives in the line of duty.
Their son, Sgt. Zachary Fisher, was killed July 14, 2010, when an improvised explosive device detonated next to his convoy in the Zabul province in Afghanistan.
He had previously served nine months in Iraq.
"Zachary would have been very proud to see his community come out and support the troops," his mother said, tears in her eyes.
Susan Jacobs held tight to a picture of her son, who was 24 when he died. She said it was "bittersweet" to be at an event welcoming home other people's children when her son will never be among them. But she said Zachary would have wanted her and her husband to be there.
"Some of these young men and women get to come home, and some of them don't," she said. "Our community needs to know both sides."
Thompson and Pena, the young Iraq veterans, disagree over whether they want their 6-month-old son to serve in the military.
Pena said he doesn't want to worry about whether his son will come home. But Thompson said Schuyler should serve if he wants. Military service gave her a pride that she wouldn't feel otherwise, she said.
"The most proud I feel is when people come up to me when I'm in my uniform." Thompson said.
Just then, a young girl in a pink coat walked over and handed her a homemade sign. It read: "Welcome Home Soldiers, love Payton Marie."
"Thank you," Thompson said, her voice wavering.
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