Laurie Ipsen and Cristopher De Phillips on Columbus Drive near Buckingham Fountain, where they are organizing the first welcome home parade in Chicago, dedicated to Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, September 28, 2012. | John H. White~Sun-Times
Updated: November 1, 2012 6:38AM
Cristopher De Phillips and Laurie Ipsen were watching television last February in the kitchen of their apartment at Ogden and Grand when they got it into their heads that Chicago should hold a parade to honor veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
De Phillips, a 35-year-old English teacher, and Ipsen, a 33-year-old restaurant manager, were an unlikely duo to have such an inspiration.
Neither served in the military. Their only real connections to anyone who did were their grandfathers, who fought in World War II. On top of that, they didn’t know the first thing about organizing a parade.
But as they watched news coverage from St. Louis of the nation’s first major parade dedicated to Iraq War vets, attended by 100,000 spectators, both were moved to think they wanted to help bring that to Chicago. They, too, wanted to show their appreciation to all those in uniform who have sacrificed in the post-9/11 era.
Little did they know then that the Chicago Welcomes Home the Heroes Parade, scheduled to kick off from Columbus and Balbo at noon, Dec. 15, would become their baby, dominating their lives ever since.
Now, as their preparations near the final stretch, the Chicago pair (roommates only, friends since high school) are reaching out for help to finish making it a reality.
“It’s a call to action. It’s going to have to be a community event,” said De Phillips, who took a semester off from his job at Prairie State College to devote full-time to the unpaid volunteer effort.
Since March, De Phillips and Ipsen have met with every veterans’ group in the Chicago area that will have them, attended veterans parades across the country to compare ideas and shadowed the organizers of other major parades here to learn the ropes.
Slowly but surely through their earnestness and persistence, they have worn down early skepticism from the close-knit veterans community, which too often in the past has been victimized by those who would take advantage to make a buck.
De Phillips recalls that initial reception.
“Who are you guys, and why are you here? What’s in this for you?” came the constant inquiries.
Others were concerned by the duo’s naivete about what a major undertaking they were proposing.
As it stands, “some of the people who were hardest on us at first are now our biggest advocates,” De Phillips said.
Those include Will Schmutz, the city of Chicago’s veterans liaison, and Ald. James Balcer (11th), a Vietnam vet who is a leading advocate for veterans causes.
“We had to give them a lot of advice, a lot of guidance,” Schmutz said.
After watching the pair faithfully follow through on that advice, Schmutz now says: “I think these are just two individuals who believe this is the right thing to do.”
“I trust them. I believe in them,” vouched Balcer, who credits Chicago’s watershed 1986 parade honoring Vietnam vets for his own political awakening.
Balcer has used his contacts to help open doors for De Phillips and Ipsen — both at City Hall and with the Pentagon.
The Emanuel administration has provided support to the organizers through the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events — but understandably in these tough fiscal times, no funding.
From the start, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have been treated better by the public than those who served in Vietnam, which taught us the lesson to honor the warrior no matter our opinions of the war.
But these wars have left their own wounds, as deeply if not as broadly felt. Parades such as this one have a legitimate role in the healing process, and I’d sure like to see everyone get behind it.
Some argue it’s too early for a parade with our soldiers still in Afghanistan. De Phillips and Ipsen hope to show continued support for the troops who remain there.
After striking out with several other proposed dates, the pair got their parade permit for Dec. 15 to mark the one-year anniversary of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta declaring the war officially over.
All veterans, active service members and their families are invited to march in the parade. No politicians.
As if the parade wasn’t enough of an undertaking, De Phillips and Ipsen have made it even more ambitious by adding a resource festival for veterans immediately afterward at Navy Pier.
Anyone who wants to be involved — either as a volunteer, participant or donor — should contact De Phillips and Ipsen through their website at www.chicagowelcomeshometheheroes.org (yes, people have told them the name is too long. They’re rookies.)
“All we want to do is say: Welcome home. Welcome back to our community,” De Phillips said.
We should be able to handle that.