At least 1,000 Iraq War veterans and their family members are expected to march in St. Louis on Saturday in the nation's first major homecoming parade honoring U.S. soldiers who served in the war, a coalition of veteran groups, private citizens and local officials said.
Since the last troops left Iraq in December there have been scattered small events, including a speech by President Barack Obama at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, thanking veterans for their service, but no major parade of the style seen at the end of World War One and World War Two.
Organizers said the downtown St. Louis parade was being run by a non-profit veteran group and several residents disturbed by the lack of a major pomp-and-circumstance homecoming for troops. They raised nearly $30,000 by Friday for the event.
"We thought that if we can have a victory parade for the Cardinals World Series victory, we certainly should be able to have one for the vets of Iraq," said St. Louis attorney Tom Appelbaum, who helped get the plans underway a month ago.
"It seems silly that there was a national debate about it," he added.
Veterans from the Iraq or Afghanistan wars may march with their families in the parade, expected to feature 83 floats, the hometown Budweiser Clydesdales, high school marching bands and units from police and fire departments, organizers said.
The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 quickly toppled Saddam Hussein, but 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 Obama, the military pullout fulfilled an election promise to bring troops home from a conflict inherited from his predecessor that evolved into the most unpopular U.S. war since Vietnam.
About 4,500 U.S. troops were killed in Iraq, and the occupation was marred by the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the killing of civilians by troops or private security contractors.
Thousands of Iraqi troops also died in the war as did thousands of Iraqi security forces in the chaotic years following the invasion, along with more than 100,000 civilians.
Parade organizers plan to begin the weekend with a ceremony starting at 9:11 p.m. on Friday at the Soldiers' Memorial near the Gateway Arch. There, the names of more than 6,000 American service men and women who died in the wars since the September 11, 2001, attacks will be read by volunteers through the night.
Supporters of the Iraq invasion cited in part a threat that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, but none were recovered, leading to increasing criticism of the war, which some thought also sapped focus from the hunt for those responsible for the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
"The fact that we have had no support from the government shows how out of touch it is with how the majority of us vets feel," said former Specialist James Casey, 29, a parade organizer from St. Louis who was part of the 2003 invasion.
"This had to be done through the grass roots. We have had tremendous support here from all generations," he added.
The parade was organized through a Facebook page that has received 1,500 "likes" and the veteran's organization, the Mission Continues.
"We want to show that the skills of the post-9/11 vets can be transferred back into the civilian world," Casey said. "We are not broken and we can still lead from the front."
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay helped smooth the details for the parade.
"These vets did all of this for all of us and they have a lot to offer us at home," Slay said. "They know how to get things done."