What began as an idea last winter to honor New Hampshire's returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans with a parade is now less than two weeks away from becoming one of the most anticipated events in the city this summer.
On July 8, the first "Welcome Home" End of Iraq War parade in New Hampshire and New England to honor returning Iraq War and Afghanistan War veterans will be held in downtown Portsmouth.
Thanks to Josh Denton, Peter Sommsich, Harold Whitehouse and Marty Cameron and the city, Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans will march through the downtown and be greeted by hundreds of friends and family members who will thank them for their service.
According to Denton, who serves as the parade steering committee's president and is an Iraq War Army veteran, the July 8 parade will step off from Junkins Avenue across from Portsmouth City Hall at 2 p.m. and proceed down Pleasant Street, turn right onto State Street, left onto Wright Avenue, left onto Daniel Street and proceed through Market Square down Congress Street onto Fleet Street and back up State Street before ending at Junkins Avenue.
On Tuesday night, Denton said 14 veterans groups, including several Veterans of Foreign Wars posts and the Pease Greeters, are going to march. He said there about two dozen Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who will also march and that number could grow.
Gov. John Lynch has agreed to be the co-grand marshal of the parade and he will march with some of New Hampshire's Gold Star families, according to Denton. Caroline Carter, the current Miss Strafford County, will sing the "National Anthem" before Lynch delivers his remarks following the parade.
"The loading zone in front of Popovers will be blocked off with saw horses for veterans that are unable to march and would like a front row seat. Everyone is responsible for bringing their own chairs," Denton wrote in an e-mail.
On Tuesday night, Denton said he was approached by the other members of the parade steering committee to help them make the parade a reality in February after St. Louis, Mo., held the first such parade in the country. Denton served in Iraq from 2006 to 2007 and had very mixed emotions about leading the effort.
Even on the day of the parade, Denton wonders how he will handle his emotions as an Iraq War veteran. He said he is not even sure how he will feel when the parade takes place or when he delivers his remarks to introduce Lynch following the parade.
But his desire to see his fellow Iraq War veterans and Afghanistan veterans and the state's Gold Star families be recognized for the sacrifices they made is much stronger than his personal feelings about his service.
"I just felt like this was something I needed to do," said Denton.
The parade's job fair component is also an attempt to help returning veterans find work and readjust to civilian life after they leave the service.
In a press release issued by the parade steering committee, Denton wrote that representatives from the Department of Veteran Affairs and the New Hampshire Employment Security will be joined by businesses looking to hire veterans. He also noted the Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce has sent the Jobs Fair attachment to generate interest to participate in the jobs fair.
The Iraq War Veterans parade organizers recognize that helping returning service members find jobs is important. Denton noted that while the national unemployment rate is at 8.2 percent, the unemployment rate among Afghanistan and Iraq veterans is at 13 percent.
Parade organizers are hoping the Obama administration's VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011 that extends and expands the Work Opportunity Tax Credit available to private-sector businesses and qualified non-profit organizations for hiring certain qualified Veterans will make it easier for companies.
"Through WOTC, for-profit employers may receive tax credits as high as $9,600 and qualified tax-exempt organizations may receive tax credits as high as $6,240 per qualified Veteran. The amount of the credit will depend on a number of factors, such as the length of the Veteran’s unemployment before hire; the number of hours the Veteran works; and the Veteran’s first year of wages," reads a press release from the Iraq War Veterans Parade organizers.
The press release notes the WOTC only applies to new employees and the qualified Veteran must start work before January 1, 2013.
Meanwhile, community support from city businesses and residents for the parade continues to grow. According to the City Council's meeting packet documents released on Monday night, more than $3,500 has been donated to the event. The City Council unanimously accepted those donations on Monday night.
Some of the Portsmouth businesses that contributed money for the parade include: Northeast Credit Union, Service Credit Union, Moxy restaurant, Geno's Chowder and Sandwich Shop, Dos Amigos Burritos, and Jumpin' Jay's Fish Cafe. Flat Bread Pizza on Congress Street donated $558.25 from a fundraiser it held earlier this month.
Denton said the parade organizers are very grateful for the support they received from City Manager John Bohenko and to the city for agreeing to co-sponsor the parade for insurance purposes.
In the event of rain, Denton wrote the job fair and post-parade ceremonies will be held at the Little Harbour School.