'Pentagon Pops' Salutes Military Heroes
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 24, 2000, Feb. 24, 2000 It was a night for heroes, and they came here, more than 60 strong, wearing blue-ribboned awards of valor -- the Medal of Honor.
Some bore canes, their walk no longer steady. Yet all proudly stepped on stage, glad to be among comrades-in-arms once more.
"Tonight we celebrate the American heroes," NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw proclaimed. "We celebrate them at a time when so many in America are (asking) "Where have all the heroes gone?' Tonight, in this hall, that is a question that we need not ask."
Brokaw was among the celebrities, entertainers, military chiefs, congressmen and other government officials who took part in the second annual Pentagon Pops, a tribute to "The Hero of the Century -- the American GI."
The Feb. 21 concert, hosted by Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and his wife, Janet Langhart Cohen, was dedicated to service members and their families. The Cohens had invited all living Medal of Honor recipients to attend the President's Day concert at the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall.
"We are paying tribute to those whose ingenuity, patriotism, valor, during the most defining moments of the 20th century quite literally changed the entire course of history," Cohen said at the start of the show. He said the resolve, patience and vigilance of America's military men and women have preserved peace the world over and helped to fulfill the nation's destiny.
Cohen also hailed the "largely unsung heroes -- the husbands, the wives, the mothers and fathers, the sons and daughters who have endured countless separations and untold hardships for a cause greater than themselves." Echoing her husband's praise, Langhart Cohen stressed that military family members' dedication is "critical to the readiness of our forces."
The Pentagon Pops is part of the Cohens' initiative to "reconnect" America and its military. About 30 Medal of Honor recipients attended last year, and the Cohens at that time said they hoped that the Pops would become an annual tradition and that even more military heroes would attend in the future.
Mark Murray, special events officer for the Military District of Washington, produced the two Pops to date. It's up to him to coordinate the stage sets, technical equipment and other aspects of the production. Making it all work "may not be fun at the time," Murray remarked, but when it all comes together on stage for two hours, "there's a great sense of accomplishment."
The U.S. Marine Band opened "Pentagon Pops 2000," which included performances by the Air Force Silver Wings and the Army's 82nd Airborne Division Chorus. Country music's Shane Minor, rhythm and blues singer Ruth Pointer and jazz trumpeter Phil Driscoll performed, and "Downtown" Julie Brown of MTV fame attended the celebration.
Prior to introducing author historian Stephen E. Ambrose, the evening's keynote speaker, NBC's Brokaw noted that the nation is losing its World War II heroes "at a fast pace." He pointed out, for example, the recent death of B-29 pilot Tom Landry, who was "one of the greatest football coaches of the modern era."
Brokaw, who met many World War II veterans while researching his books "The Greatest Generation" and "The Greatest Generation Speaks," recognized the humility of those who opposed Hitler's forces.
"When I would talk to veterans of World War II," Brokaw recalled, "the first thing they would say to me was, 'I was no hero.' And they'd tell me about someone who served by their side -- a buddy who they lost on the front lines, or at sea or in the air.
"Nothing has meant more to me in my life than in some small way to record their stories and to remind America once again of all the heroes who have gone before us, not just those who died in combat or who have earned the medals, but those who served proudly, with dignity, well behind the front lines," Brokaw said. "Their families -- their mothers, their wives, their sisters, their children -- who kept the home fires burning."
With a backdrop of uniformed troops denoting GIs from World War II to the present, Ambrose, whose books include "Citizen Soldier" and "Undaunted Courage," hailed the global accomplishments of America's armed forces.
"There are millions of people today who owe their freedom to GI Joe," the author said. "People in Europe, Asia and the Middle East need to say thanks, every day, to the American service men and women, and their allies, for the sacrifices they made to ensure the triumph of freedom and democracy."
Army Gen. Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, commended both Brokaw and Ambrose. "Through the power of the written word," the general said, "these two great Americans have helped keep America connected to its military heritage."
Shelton also pointed out several World War II Tuskegee Airmen who were among the Pops' honorees. These black fighter pilots, he said, fought America's enemies on foreign shores even as they fought racial discrimination at home.
Tim Russert, host of NBC's "Meet the Press," read a GI's letter from World War II. "The words of war come in many forms," he said, "but if you seek the truth in reality of war, you must in the end rely on the written words of the American GI."
Russert dedicated his reading to the most important soldier in his life --"My Dad, Army Air Force Sgt. Tim Russert, serial number 122 00 679. He survived a crash of his B-24 American Liberator and returned home to become commander of the South Buffalo Post 721 American Legion, raise four kids and, to this day, lives a life of hard work and dignity."
Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Vietnam veteran who leaped into a burning armored personnel carrier to pull his brother to safety; Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, who lost an arm during World War II; and Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, a former military pilot and astronaut, also took part in the event.
Hagel praised America's military men and women for their selfless sacrifice and for serving as national role models. "The essence of a great democracy, a great nation, is service -- as Bill Cohen said -- to something bigger than oneself," Hagel said.
"Your honorable service anchors who we are as a people, first, and as a nation, second," the senator said. "On behalf of my colleagues and my friends in the Congress, I'm privileged to be able to share with you some thoughts and bring to you our thanks, and salute you for what you do every day."