ST. PAUL — “We are the troops!” chanted the Iraq War veterans.

“How do you support us? their comrades responded.

“Bring us home!” came the response.

So began Monday’s massive anti-war demonstration, led by members of Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace that brought tens of thousands of demonstrator from Minnesota’s state capitol to the Xcel Energy Center where Republicans will nominate pro-war Senator John McCain for president.

Edwin Pagan, 25, a U.S. Army sergeant who served in Iraq and now lives in Las Vegas, and a buddy from Seattle carried a U.S. flag upside down as a signal of distress.

“We are in distress,” he said, “Brothers, sisters are dying in a war that we should not be fighting. We needed to be here to tell John McCain, as veterans of this war, that it must end.”

The first day of the Republican National Convention had been constrained of concern about partying as Hurricane Gustav struck the Gulf Coast.

But the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans — who began the day by delivering a folded flag and a briefing on veterans issues to the gates of the convention center complex — and their anti-war supporters said they had come to make it clear, despite what might eventually be said from the podium inside the Xcel Center, that the only way to support the troops is to end the war.

“The Republicans who go on and on about maintaining this war don’t care. We care,” said retired U.S. Army Col. Ann Wright, who resigned as a State Department official in March, 2003, to protest the invasion of Iraq. “That’s why we’re here on the streets. It’s for our conscience and our principles. We could not allow John McCain to be nominated and to have all this talk about how he is a veteran and how he supports the war go unchallenged. It was necessary that we be here to say: No, this war is wrong. It is wrong for the U.S. troops. It is wrong for their families. It is wrong for America. It is wrong for Iraq and the Iraqis. It is just wrong. John McCain is just wrong.”

Marching with the troops “were” veterans of another kind — hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Minnesotans who pulled out t-shirts and signs with the name of the late Paul Wellstone. Police, who reported making 284 arrests after clashes in other parts of downtown St. Paul, estimated that roughly 10,000 people participated in the peaceful march from the state capital to the convention center.

Organizers put the number of marchers much higher.

Throughout the crowd, which took hours to move through the streets of St. Paul, were men and women carrying green “Wellstone” signs and wearing “Camp Wellstone” shirts.

Wellstone, the Minnesota senator who votes againt authorizing the Bush administration to attack Iraq just weeks before he died in an October, 2002, plane crash, was remembered as an American patriot who had the courage to stand against the rush to war by the Bush administration and congressional allies such as John McCain.

“If Paul Wellstone had lived, we might not have to be marching today,” said Mary Vanderford, a naturalist from the Twin Cities. “He would have emerged as the leader of the fight to prevent the war, and if it had started I think he would have gotten the Democrats to oppose it sooner and more firmly.”

Carol Becker, a Minneapolis Board of Estimate member, was equally firm.

“We’re marching to oppose the war,” she said. “But we are also marching in memory of our senator, who had the courage and the wisdom to oppose the war when others — including John McCain — did not.”

As she spoke, a groups of students began chanting, “McCain says: ‘a hundred years.’ We say: ‘No more!'”

The chant turned to a roar that echoed through the streets of St. Paul, where there were few Republicans to be found outside a slimmed-down convention.

There was little question, on a day when those with anti-war signs easily outnumbered those wearing McCain pins on the streets of St. Paul, that the next chant of the demonstrators was right: “Get up! Get down! There’s an anti-war movement in this town.”