Operation Welcome Home: A National Day of Action for Iraq Veterans
IAVA is calling for a National Day of Action, modeled on the success of the nation’s first “Welcome Home Our Heroes” parade held in St. Louis on January 28th, to extend the nation’s gratitude to all one million Iraq veterans and their families around a single day of parades, memorials and support service fairs. Explore our Q&A below to learn more and support Operation Welcome Home. Sign our petition to President Obama and Mayors nationwide here.
The Iraq war is over. It ended officially on December 31, 2011. This moment is not about victory celebrations. Nor is it about whether or not to have parades for our troops. It’s about channeling the tremendous groundswell of goodwill and support of the American people around our Iraq veterans and their families now and for years to come. As history closes the chapter on Iraq, Americans want to respect all those who served there, remember those who died, and respond to the challenges they’re now facing as they transition home. The President told the world in December that the Iraq war is over. Now, Americans want to celebrate our veterans and thank them for their service and sacrifice. They refuse to wait. They don’t want to repeat the mistakes after Vietnam—and they are concerned they’ve already waited too long. A massive event lead by civilians already took place in St Louis on January 18th. Others are coming soon in San Antonio, Richmond and at least 13 other cities (as of February 12).
IAVA knows parades are not enough. But they are already happening. So the question our community now has to ask is not: do we want a parade or not? Instead, the question we must ask is: do we want to actively work to stop them?
IAVA is dedicated to improving the lives of all 2.4 million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. We want to channel the goodwill, support and momentum happening nationwide after St Louis to deliver lasting, critical resources, so our community can combat unemployment, invisible wounds, homelessness and other challenges on the home front. This moment is about more than a parade. It’s a movement to support our veterans forever.
II. Dinner at the White House? It’s historic, but exclusive.
In December, the President told the country the Iraq war was over. Last week, the White House announced that on February 29th, he and the First Lady will host an historic State Dinner—dubbed “A Nation’s Gratitude”—for 200 Iraq veterans from all 50 states. It’s the First Family’s way of saying “thank you” for their service. The Pentagon brass is fine with the dinner, calling it appropriate and unprecedented.
IAVA feels the same way. It’s a welcomed move and many IAVA members will be there in attendance. But all one million Iraq veterans can’t pack into the East Wing that night. Average Americans who want to show their gratitude can’t be there either. For those vets who can’t attend the black-tie event, the American people want to say thank you to them, too—in their hometowns.
III. A National Day of Action for Iraq Vets channels America’s goodwill.
Before the State Dinner on February 29th, IAVA calls on President Obama to convene a meeting of mayors nationwide and leading veterans groups to organize a 21st century National Day of Action—“Operation Welcome Home”—to honor and direct resources to Iraq veterans. Instead of having scattered parades, on different days, in different cities, all year long, IAVA is leading efforts—with civilians and veterans united—to create one historic day of action: parades, memorials, service events, and supportive resource fairs in cities large and small. They will be complimented and augmented by online efforts for those who cannot attend in person and are serving overseas. It also provides opportunities for those serving overseas to organize shadow events in tribute and solidarity.
Through this initiative, veterans groups, the President and Mayors nationwide have an unprecedented opportunity to keep the spotlight on our returning troops and channel the goodwill of the American people to support them and their families. This transformative day will make sure it’s not just one fleeting day of events. A National Day of Action for Iraq veterans will jumpstart a commitment by thousands of Americans to make every day Veterans Day. It will continue momentum into Memorial Day, July 4, Veterans Day, and it will create a template that can be easily and quickly replicated when the Afghanistan war ends as well as for any future conflicts faced by our nation.
IV. St. Louis was the spark AND The Model—even the brass agree.
On January 28th, St. Louis was the first city in the nation to officially welcome home our Iraq veterans. It set the national benchmark not simply because it turned out 100,000 Americans in support of our troops, but because it was a multifaceted event. The highly impactful, grassroots, civilian-led parade gave Americans a chance to say “thank you” to the troops. But it was anchored by an opening Memorial Ceremony and a Veterans Resource Village that connected local veterans with critical employment, education and health resources. It also brought together the public and private sectors to support the veteran community.
St. Louis was successful thanks to the initiative of two highly-motivated civilians and friends, Craig Schneider and Tom Applebaum, with a Facebook page. The parade turned out veterans groups like The Mission Continues, Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) and IAVA as well as corporate sponsors like Budweiser and Mayflower. Local Vietnam veterans and in particular St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley added critical leadership on the ground.
The Pentagon has stated repeatedly that it supports this St. Louis model, calling it “a model for the rest of the nation.” IAVA agrees—and we firmly believe the model can be easily replicated from Los Angeles to St. Paul to Boston to support as many Iraq veterans as possible.
V. Calls for the parades predate the War’s end.
The civilian calls for parades to honor our troops started before the Iraq war ended in December. In New York City, patriotic civilian leadership from both parties has been steering this initiative since Republican Staten Island City Councilman Vincent Ignizio first penned an oped in the New York Post on December 21, 2011. Now, folks of all political stripes and generations ranging from former Mayor Ed Koch to Speaker Christine Quinn (D-3) support a citywide celebration. Mayor Bloomberg even said he would welcome it—if the Department of Defense lifted its guidance restrictions.
But this movement is about much more than New York City. The St. Louis parade started solely because two guys launched a Facebook page and motivated a grassroots group of citizens. In less than a week, it morphed into an incredibly inspiring event. Now, ordinary Americans in a dozen cities from San Antonio to Richmond are moving to organize parades for returning veterans. Lead by civilians, this movement is gaining steam by the day—reinforcing the urgency to coordinate efforts and resources.
VI. Parades are a good start—but they’re just a start.
Parades have been a means to welcome home returning troops since America’s founding. The ticker-tape parade down Broadway in New York City is an American tradition as old as the Statue of Liberty. Parades are a key way Americans have marked the closure of war, and they have been most iconic at the end of World War II. During WWII, several ticker tape parades were given in honor of the troops, generals and admirals even as fighting continued the front. On June 19, 1945, General Eisenhower received a ticker tape parade in New York City as the war continued to rage in the Pacific. When Japan surrendered later that year, vets from the Pacific front got their own parade. In fact, Fleet Admiral Nimitz received two ticker-tape parades—one on October 5 in Washington, D.C. and another on October 9 in New York City. Decades later, the U.S. threw a $12 million National Victory Celebration Parade for Gulf War Veterans in 1991. But there were unfortunate exceptions--Vietnam and Korea veterans had to wait until 1985 for an event and parade.
But parades are what Americans are used to and what they are planning now. IAVA appreciates the effort and won’t stop them. But our Iraq veterans, after bearing the burden of an entire nation for so long by themselves, deserve far more than a parade, especially as they return home to record unemployment and a troubling rise in suicides in the military and veteran community. A parade is a good start and a symbol of a grateful country, no matter citizens’ politics. However, similar to St. Louis, they must be just one element of an ongoing welcome home and support process for our troops by the American people. We want to help our civilian supporters and local political leaders make them into so much more than just a traditional parade. 21st century veterans and a 21st century nation deserve a 21st century response.
VII. We’re not leaving anyone behind in Afghanistan, or at home.
Just because the war in Iraq is over doesn’t mean we’re turning the page on Afghanistan or the more than 90,000 troops who are still serving there in harm’s way. Many Iraq veterans have come home only to deploy again to Afghanistan. Thousands of veterans have seen tours in both countries. But many veterans also got out of the military in 2003 and 2004, and need and deserve support now. They can’t wait 10 years before our nation responds. Following WWII, several ticker tape parades were given in honor of victorious generals and admirals, including General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Admiral Chester Nimitz, even as fighting continued in the Pacific.
A parade shouldn’t drive a wedge between those who served in one theater and those who served in another. Our bond and ethos as brothers- and sisters-in-arms is stronger than that. Welcome home events for those who have returned pave the way for those yet to come.
Americans shouldn’t have to wait until combat operations end in Afghanistan to start this process—combat might not end until 2013 at the earliest. If we wait for all combat operations to end even beyond Afghanistan, it may never happen. We all expect fighting associated with the Global War on Terror to continue in some form for the indefinite future.
VIII. Resistance to parades from veterans threatens external support—from civilians.
St. Louis is a reality. The parade happened in January—quickly and unexpectedly—without veterans groups calling for or leading the effort. It might not have been perfect, but it did no harm to our veterans community. Now, a dozen more parades are in the works across the country from San Antonio to Richmond. So the question our community now has to ask is not: do we want a parade or not? Instead, the question we must ask is: do we want to actively work to stop them?
As veterans, we tread a slippery slope by opposing these events. Some in our community have suggested that Americans’ turnout at parades after a decade of war is merely symbolic, superficial or patronizing to those who have served. But we have to remember that we represent less than one percent of the U.S. population. Signs of opposition and tension in our ranks could be wrongly interpreted by other Americans outside our community as a boycott of their support and goodwill. This fuels misperceptions at a time when we need to bridge the military-civilian divide, so we can rally all Americans around our military, military families and veterans of all generations.
This is a teaching moment for our community. It should be viewed as a critical opportunity to bridge the civilian-military divide by educating those who haven’t served. Many Americans view these wars as distinct while many in our community do not. We need to understand civilians and their perceptions, so we can work together side-by-side to better deliver support and resources to every veteran in our ranks. Knowledge is power.
We also have to remember that not everyone will do something time-intensive like volunteer at a VA hospital. Many Americans don’t even know a veteran let alone where to meet one. Attending a parade is an easy opportunity for immediate engagement—and hopefully sustained engagement. We should use these low-impact events as “on-ramps” for the average American to join our fight for core support in the areas that matter most in the long run: jobs, education, healthcare, family support.
As we saw in St. Louis, we also know that many veterans will attend these parades and events. Thousands turned out in St. Louis driving from as far away as Montana. Many are unaware of the resources IAVA and other non-profits provide on a regular basis until they explored the Veteran Resource Village at the end of the parade. If we can use one of these events to educate them about benefits, house just one homeless vet, or send just one vet to college on the New GI Bill, then we should be there to do that.
IX. NYC shouldn’t be the exception.
IAVA appreciates the Defense Department’s guidance on this issue—and in no way suggests that parades should be interpreted as victory or spiking the ball on the war in Iraq. It’s great that the Pentagon supports the parade efforts in St. Louis and the President’s is hosting a State Dinner for Iraq vets. But their opposition to a parade in NYC is inconsistent and counter-productive.
To say that it is okay for Americans to host a parade for our troops in St. Louis or the heartland but NOT in New York City unfairly denies more than 8 million New Yorkers the opportunity to say “welcome home” and spotlight resources for the transition home. New York City shouldn’t be the exception to the rule. It’s the heart of Ground Zero and the events of 9/11 inspired thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to answer the call to serve. The citizens of New York have a right and obligation to honor these men and women—no matter which war they served in. The fact that New Yorkers live in a big city and do things on a big-scale doesn't give the Department of Defense the right to say "We support all other efforts nationwide to recognize Iraq Veterans. But as for New York, not there, not yet." The eight million citizens of New York City are just like every other American. They sleep under the same blanket of freedom our troops provide. They sent their sons and daughters to war too. They shouldn’t be excluded from welcoming them home.
X. The Events Don’t Waste Money—They Make It.
St. Louis was at least partially funded by corporate sponsors like Mayflower and Budweiser. Resources were also donated by local people ranging from food and drink to transportation. The increased tourism revenue associated with events of this type offset any expense incurred by city or local government. For example, according to the Mayor’s office in NYC, the Giants welcome parade generated $38 million in revenue for the city. We have heard time and time again that people will travel far and wide to attend an event (whether it’s in NYC or San Antonio). Those folks will eat, stay in hotels and buy gas. All of that means increased revenue for the local economy and supports local jobs.
An event also means immediate and much-needed support for veterans groups and supportive non-profits, which are struggling in a rough economy where donations are down. When these events happen, local non-profits see a boost in donations and volunteers to support year-long efforts to house, employ, feed and engage veterans of all generations. The Mission Continues and The Welcome Home Foundation in St Louis set a goal to raise $7 million in seven days. That kind of traction would have been impossible without something as high-visibility as the parade. If complimented by robust online efforts, a National Day of Action for Iraq veterans could raise the scale of funds to support the veteran community as we’ve seen for causes like the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the 2004 tsunami in Asia.
As for groups like IAVA, a National Day of Action will not distract or detract from our core programs and efforts. We continue to focus on healthcare, employment, education and community for the 2.4 million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and their families. In just the last year, IAVA has connected hundreds of veterans with employers, helped over 100,000 go to college on the new GI Bill, provided mental health support to over 50,000 and hosted 350 local events nationwide. Parade and action efforts will only add volunteers, outreach opportunities media attention, political support, corporate backing, and increased donations to support that ongoing work. The same is true for groups ranging from the VA to the Veterans Crisis Support Line to the VFW.
In just the last year, IAVA has connected hundreds of veterans with employers through innovative career fairs, helped over 10,000 veterans go to college on the New GI Bill, and provided mental health support to over 50,000 veterans—all at no cost to Member Veterans. Programs like these are only made possible through your generous support. Fight for those who fought for us and help us keep these resources and benefits completely free for new veterans and their families. DONATE >>
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