By Bruce Olson, Reuters
Thousands of people lined the streets of downtown St. Louis on Saturday cheering on marchers in a parade honoring veterans of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the nation’s first major welcome to soldiers since the end of the Iraq War.
Crowds of parade-goers stretched a mile through the center of the city on a crisp winter’s day, many waving American flags, with the metallic Gateway Arch glistening in the background in an event reminiscent of parades following World War One and World War Two.
“I’m just loving it,” said Staff Sergeant Chris Green, 35, who volunteered for the Missouri National Guard two months after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington and was part of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
“When I heard this was happening I was choked up to say the least,” Green said. “With the president cutting back (on the military), for Missouri to pull this together despite everything is just outstanding, absolutely outstanding.”
While the invasion of Iraq quickly toppled Saddam Hussein, the country descended into sectarian violence and an occupation that dragged on for nearly nine years before the last U.S. forces pulled out in December.
For President Barack Obama, the military pullout fulfilled an election promise to bring troops home from a conflict he inherited from his predecessor that evolved into the most unpopular U.S. war since Vietnam.
There have been no major pomp-and-circumstance homecoming events for the returning veterans save for scattered small events since the last U.S. troops left Iraq, including a speech by Obama at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, thanking veterans for their service.