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Veterans group presses Obama on ‘welcome home’ for Iraq troops

Olivier Knox
The Ticket

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President Barack Obama shakes hands with Arlington County firefighter and US Marine Corps veteran Lt. Jacob Johnson, …

A small but vocal veterans group has enlisted more than 20,000 people on a petition urging President Barack Obama to honor soldiers returning home from Iraq with a national day including parades in major cities.

"Our message to the president is: Let's work together on this, let's capitalize on the moment," Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) executive director Paul Rieckhoff told Yahoo News.

"To use a military term: Let's coordinate fires. Let's get everybody working on the same page," Rieckhoff said, worrying about a "fragmented" approach to capitalizing on "all the goodwill" towards veterans.

Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama plan to honor returning Iraq veterans by hosting a black-tie, state dinner-style affair at the White House on Feb. 29 for around 200 hand-picked guests from the various branches of the military. Members of "Gold Star Families" that have lost a loved one in the conflict will also be present.

"It's a welcome gesture from your administration to our veterans after a decade of war, and I'm honored to have received an invitation to attend," Rieckhoff said in an open letter to Obama dated Wednesday.

"However, IAVA represents over one million Iraq veterans who have served in the past eight years. Millions of Americans nationwide want to say "thank you" to these veterans too—and I'm writing in hopes that the White House can help make this possible," wrote Rieckhoff, whose official biography says he served as a first lieutenant and infantry rifle platoon leader in Iraq in 2003-2004.

Some 1.5 million Americans fought in Iraq after the March 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. Combat troops withdrew in December after a bloody conflict that left about 4,500 American troops dead and 32,000 wounded. IAVA claims 200,000 members and supporters.

The IAVA petition, which as of 11:15 a.m. Thursday had 20,547 supporters, asks Obama and mayors nationwide "to organize a single national day of action, coordinating the efforts of cities and towns nationwide to celebrate our nation's newest heroes and connect them with the resources they have earned."

The Pentagon has indicated discomfort with such an effort, with officials noting that the roughly 90,000 US troops still fighting in Afghanistan includes many Iraq War veterans and urging that celebrations be put off until that conflict winds down.

"There are many Iraq vets who are now fighting on the battlefield in Afghanistan, and the feeling was that the appropriate time to have a national New York-style tickertape parade was the time when combat troops were back home," Assistant Secretary of Defense Doug Wilson has said.

"That does not mean that communities all over the country shouldn't do initiatives and events on their own; they should. The event in St. Louis was terrific, and it was something that we applaud and we know that there will be more of," Wilson said, referring to a late-January parade that organizers estimated drew 100,000 people.

"There will always be people in combat," Rieckhoff told Yahoo News. "If we wait for the day when everybody comes home, that day may never come."

Rieckhoff said he had asked the White House whether he could send a US Army veteran and IAVA organizer from Saint Louis to the dinner in his place, noting he had already met the president. He also emphasized that "this is not adversarial."

"And this is not about a parade," he stressed. "This is about a lot more than a parade. Let's make this about job fairs, let's make it about homeless outreach."

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

But the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), which claims some two million members, echoed the Pentagon view.

"Our position is that certainly our veterans deserve a parade. However, when we have 90,000 or so troops fighting in Afghanistan, and conceivably some of those at least have served in Iraq, we think that's a little bit premature," VFW communications director Jerry Newberry told Yahoo News.

The American Legion, which claims some 2.4 million members, initially declined to comment.

But in a statement later in the day, the group said it "supports any recognition of our brave servicemembers who have served In Iraq and Afghanistan.  It is important that we as a nation welcome home all of our troops and that includes those who are still in combat now when they return home."

"We fully support the President's plan to host the State Dinner honoring those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. While parades end, the needs of veterans continue. The American Legion welcomes veterans home every day.  The American Legion assists all veterans in accessing the benefits they have earned through their honorable military service.  We believe that is showing the thanks of a grateful nation."

Update, 4:30 pm: This piece has been updated to reflect an interview with Rieckhoff and a new statement from the American Legion, which earlier said it had no position.

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