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Senator seeks official 'welcome home' for Iraq and Afghanistan vets

Jun. 18, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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On Thursday, Sen. Tim Kaine will introduce a resolution to mark this Veterans Day as an formal celebration for the youngest generation of war fighters. (Stan Honda / AFP)
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Sen. Tim Kaine wants Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to have an official welcome home.

“The president has said combat operations [in Afghanistan] will end in 2014, and we can’t allow these kind of milestones to go unrecognized,” the Virginia Democrat said. “We need to have that moment. We need to mark the end of that chapter.”

On Thursday, Kaine will introduce a resolution to mark this Veterans Day as an formal celebration for the youngest generation of war fighters.

The move doesn’t carry any money or mandates, but Kaine hopes if it passes the Senate it can act as a firing pistol for a host of nationwide celebrations honoring the military sacrifices of the last 13 years.

It’s not the first attempt for some type of post-Sept. 11 V-J Day, the surrender of Japan to end World War II. But it’s the first major push since the White House announced plans to end the combat phase of the war in Afghanistan at the end of this year, and slowly draw the remaining U.S. forces out of that country over the next two years.

Kaine acknowledged with troops still deployed in Afghanistan, critics will call a victory celebration this Nov. 11 premature. But he insists the moment is already overdue for the more than 2.5 million troops who have already come home from both wars.

“We’re already going to have a Veterans Day. This year, let’s make it a special one for those veterans,” he said.

The idea of a “welcome home” celebration for U.S. troops has been controversial in the past, both inside and outside the veterans community.

Some veterans groups pushed for a nationwide day of recognition in 2011, when U.S. forces withdrew completely from Iraq. City officials in St. Louis held the largest such celebration in January 2012, with thousands of spectators cheering on recently-returned veterans in a weekend parade.

In February 2012, the White House hosted a formal state dinner to honor the sacrifice of servicemembers in Iraq. Pentagon officials selected 78 Iraq veterans to attend the event, to act as stand-ins for the more than 1 million servicemembers who deployed to Iraq and the 4,475 killed in fighting there.

But Pentagon officials have resisted larger celebrations while American troops are still deployed in Afghanistan, saying it sends the wrong message to a nation still at war. They haven’t yet weighed in on Kaine’s plan.

Officials from Vietnam Veterans of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion have signed on to Kaine’s idea. Richard Weidman, VVA’s policy director, said he hopes the move starts a national conversation about the wars and their after-effects, one that never really took place after the controversies of Vietnam.

“There’s more to making veterans whole than just government programs,” he said. “This is about really welcoming people back into civil society.”

In 2006 and 2007, Congress set aside $20 million in the annual defense budget bills for a national celebration to honor troops at the conclusion of Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The White House still holds the authority to organize such an event, but the money has long since been redirected to other priorities.

Veterans from the first Gulf War were welcomed home with a march down Broadway in June 1991, paid for through private donations. Weidman said the week surrounding Veterans Day 1979 was designated for marking the work of the Vietnam Veterans, providing an important — if understated — moment of pride for many of those warfighters.

Kaine said the resolution won’t conflict with ongoing work on care delay reforms at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the top priority issue for most veterans organizations at the moment. A national celebration, he argues, will complement those efforts, by raising public awareness of the challenges facing the returning troops.

Through June 18, 6,819 Americans have been killed and 52,037 have been wounded in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

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