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Houston to host parade honoring Iraq War veterans

By LINDSAY WISE | Houston Chronicle | Published: March 14, 2012

The Iraq War officially ended with little fanfare three months ago, but Houston service members who fought in the nearly decadelong conflict are about to be treated to a Bayou City-style welcome-home celebration.

The nation's fourth-largest city will host a parade next month to honor Iraq War veterans.

St. Louis became the first city in the country to throw such a parade. That event, held in January, reportedly drew 100,000 spectators who cheered and waved as hundreds of veterans marched through the streets.

Houston's parade is scheduled for Saturday, April 7, said Gene Tulich, chairman of the nonprofit Houston Military Affairs Committee.

The Lone Star Veterans Association, a Houston-based Iraq and Afghanistan veterans group, will march front and center, followed by military personnel from local Reserve and National Guard units, Tulich said. Veterans of previous wars also are invited to participate.

The parade will kick off between 3 and 3:30 p.m., with assembly about 2 p.m., Tulich said. The route has yet to be determined, but will end at Minute Maid Park, where the Astros have donated 1,000 tickets for personnel in uniform, and their families, in addition to Iraq War veterans who are no longer in uniform.

Jessica Michan, spokeswoman for Mayor Annise Parker, said the city can't confirm the exact date and time until after a planning meeting Wednesday.

"The mayor wanted to do something to honor the Iraq War veterans," said Michan. "She is proud to partner with the Astros for this and plans to have a major announcement with all the details in the next week or so."

The parade will allow veterans to connect with resources such as counseling, health care and jobs, said Buddy Grantham, director of city's Office of Veterans Affairs.

"It won't be a big, giant Veterans Day parade -- we already do those -- but I see it as a parade where we are honoring the veterans and their families," Grantham said. "That's our goal. We want to say thank you for their service."

Time isn't right?

The nonprofit organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America has led calls for a high-profile, national event to mark the end of the Iraq War in December. During nine years of combat, more than 4,400 American service members were killed and 32,000 injured.

With about 89,000 troops still serving in Afghanistan, however, Department of Defense officials have said the time isn't right for a New York-style ticker-tape parade like those held after World War II. Instead, the White House hosted a black-tie dinner for more than 200 Iraq War veterans and their guests on Feb. 29.

Pentagon spokesman Doug Wilson said last month that military leaders want to wait until all troops return from combat in Afghanistan before endorsing a national-level event, but in the meantime they do encourage local welcome home parades.

"We don't exactly see eye-to-eye with the Pentagon on this," said Jason Hansman, membership director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "We recognize that there are troops fighting in Afghanistan currently, yet that shouldn't take away from Iraq veterans who are home. They should get recognized, and it also sends a signal to Afghanistan vets that when they return home, they are going to have a warm welcome just like the Iraq veterans are getting."

Not a one-day tribute

Hansman was one of about 100 Iraq War veterans at the White House dinner. The event was a good first step, he said, but not very inclusive.

John Boerstler, an Iraq War veteran from Missouri City who serves as president of Lone Star Veterans Association, said the parade isn't just a one-day tribute.

"These veterans need to be welcomed home every day. This isn't just a media ploy to us," Boerstler said. "This is an opportunity to raise awareness of the issues that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans face. We're working hard every day, all throughout the year, to prevent unemployment, to prevent substance abuse, family problems and divorce, homelessness, crime, and -- most importantly -- suicide."

Added Grantham: "There's never a wrong time to say thank you."

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