Chicago Welcomes Home Heroes Parade
Two civilians welcome war veterans with the nation’s most high-profile parade yet
At first glance, nothing about Cristopher De Phillips, 35, and Laurie Ipsen, 33, screams “passionate advocate for veterans’ affairs.”
De Phillips, sporting an elaborate musical-staff tattoo on his right bicep, teaches English at Prairie State University. Ipsen, a slight blond, is a restaurant manager. In their modest River West apartment, a black-and-white portrait of the peace-loving John Lennon hangs on one wall, while Christmas tree lights cast their living room in a grungy green glow. Both of their grandfathers served in World War II, but they didn’t grow up in military families and the northwest suburb of Streamwood—where they met in high school and became good friends (though nothing more)—isn’t a military town.
But come Saturday 15, De Phillips and Ipsen will have put on a parade in the nation’s biggest city yet to honor post-9/11 veterans.
Even the way they came up with the idea is unconventional.“We were watching The Rachel Maddow Show,” explains Ipsen. “She did a segment on the St. Louis parade. A couple of civilians threw it together in a month, and 100,000 people showed up.”
“Both the mayor of New York and the mayor of Boston at that time said they weren’t going to have parades because the Defense Department advised against it,” De Phillips says. “And then somebody posed the question, because it was around February, ‘In a couple of weeks there’s going to be a parade for the Super Bowl champion in one of your cities, and you’re not going to have a parade for veterans?’ ”
Inspired, De Phillips and Ipsen decided to do something for veterans in Chicago. Veterans like Robert James, 40, who enlisted in the Army when he was 19. Originally from Austin, James said he joined the military to avoid gangs and drugs. “I went to the recruiting center on July 3 and was in basic training on July 6,” says James, who served two tours in Iraq before he was injured. The transition back to civilian life was difficult. “Chicago is a different animal,” James says. “The closest military base is Great Lakes, so a lot of people don’t fall into the military culture. It’s weird to come back with a disability and reacclimate.” James, who now lives in Madison where he teaches veterans how to apply for jobs, met Ipsen and De Phillips at a job-training event and was instantly struck by their passion for the project. “It’s an honor that someone would care about what we do that much.”
Paul Pipik, 35, agrees. He met De Phillips when they were both University of Chicago grad students. For Pipik, who served ten months in Baghdad and is still in the Reserves, the transition back to civilian life was brutal. He was in school when he was deployed, “in the middle of midterms,” and when he returned, he narrowly avoided flunking out. “It’s inspiring to me,” he says of the parade. “[Iraq War veterans] have been coming back for the last ten years with no parades, no brass bands.”
For De Phillips and Ipsen, the challenges of finding sponsors, raising money (the City of Chicago isn’t paying for the parade) and sifting through hundreds of float applications has been difficult but rewarding. The day after their parade permit came through in June, The Rachel Maddow Show ran another segment on the St. Louis event, mentioning Chicago’s parade and suggesting that President Obama come and make the Chicago gathering the official Welcome Home Parade for the troops. (There’s no word as of press time on whether he or anyone else from the administration is coming.) “She got it exactly right,” De Phillips says. “She even understood that we chose December 15 because it’s the anniversary of the end of the Iraq War.” After the show aired, a couple wrote a check for $10,000 in support.
When I interviewed De Phillips and Ipsen, they were both clearly tired, tearing up easily when asked to reflect upon some of their most memorable moments of the past few months. But they both say it’s been worth it. “It’s really hard for me to hear [veterans] say thank you to us,” De Phillips says. “We should be thanking them.”
See listings. To donate, visit chicagowelcomeshometheheroes.org.