ST. LOUIS –– Waving flags and holding signs, people three deep along the parade route yelled, “Welcome home,” “You rock” and “We salute you” to troops who have returned from Hempfling, an Iraq veteran who was a specialist fourth class during his time in the military, stands with his family and waves during the “Welcome Home the Heroes” parade in St. Louis Jan. 28. He is pictured with his wife, Stacey, and daughters Taylor, 11, and Brooke, 3. The ceremony drew thousands of people to welcome home the soldiers from the war in Iraq. (CNS photo/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review)

They were taking part in the nation’s first “Welcome Home the Heroes from Iraq Day” Jan. 28 in downtown St. Louis.

Catholics from Missouri and Illinois were among the thousands who gathered for the salute or took part in the parade.

It started as an idea between two friends, Craig Schneider and Tom Appelbaum, who quickly put together an official thank-you to the men and women who served their country in Iraq. They began a Facebook group that ignited thousands of citizens to donate time, money and services for the cause.

“It’s nice to be recognized. It means a lot,” David Behle, a reservist who served in Iraq, told the St. Louis Review, the archdiocesan newspaper. A member of St. Joseph Parish in Cottleville, he wants to see a similar event when troops return from Afghanistan.

“It’s hard to believe that private citizens came up with this idea in three weeks time and made it this huge — a turnout like this on a January day,” said Richard Cullen, quartermaster of a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Illinois. He is a member of Holy Ghost Parish in Jerseyville, Ill.

Cullen said his parish pastor, a veteran of the Korean War, and the parish have supported the troops as have many other churches. He noted that while he was in the Army serving in Iraq and Germany he was lucky to have a Catholic chaplain serving his battalion.

“It’s nice to be able to go to a service and practice your faith,” he said, noting that it was a time to put aside worries. “Whether it was in a tent or under a tree, it was really nice to have that.”

Also taking part in the parade were Scotty and Melissa Wood, looking sharp in their dress uniforms. They are from Clarksville, Tenn., where they serve on a base and are members of Immaculate Conception Parish there. Scotty Wood said he gets gratitude from the people he has served with but “it’s always nice to come home and feel appreciated. It’s reassuring.”

Melissa Wood, who grew up in St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in St. Charles, said the Clarksville parish has been supportive. Especially needed is for people to reach out to the families who have a spouse serving overseas, she said, noting that as soon as her husband left that is when a malfunction would happen at their home. Sometimes, Melissa and her husband said, staying home alone and caring for three young children can be as difficult as being deployed.

Scotty Wood said that each deployment brought him closer to his faith, “even when you see horrible things.”

His wife agreed about the effect of combat, noting that some people who previously didn’t have any faith grew closer to God.

“And combat brings people together in a way nothing else can,” she said. “When everything is chaos around you — that’s when you need something that can pull you through.”

They recalled how much they enjoyed religious services in Iraq, and Scotty Wood cited the help provided by the chaplains.

Ricky Elcan, who attends St. Norbert Church in Florissant, was with a combat systems support battalion in Iraq and had 800 soldiers under his command. “I lost a few. That’s why I’m here,” he said, noting his appreciation for the support being given the military.

Elcan sees the need to help returning soldiers get jobs. He, too, felt a sense of peace when going to church in Iraq and a “a feeling of being connected. Listening to the word of God would re-energize me.”

In a war, “you have to have faith,” he said.

Joseph Woodward of High Ridge said he appreciated the St. Louis community “taking the lead for the nation at a crucial time.”

People who support the military are important during a war effort, he added. When people respond to him when he is in uniform, he said, that is a reminder that “it’s an honor to serve the country.”

Among others giving support were Marcia Wells of Valle Mines and Andrea Politte of Pevely, who were with a group from Camp Hope, a 180-acre outdoor space that helps wounded veterans heal.

Connie McClellan drove in from Columbia, Mo., to salute the Iraq veterans. Her son, a Marine, was shot once while serving in Iraq and twice while in Afghanistan, and the last time was hit in the head. He now is a college student. She has written a book about him, “My Miracle Marine.”