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Troops Overwhelmed By Pre-Inaugural Gala at MCI Center

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 19, 2005 – Troops honored at a Jan. 18 "Saluting Those Who Serve" extravaganza at the MCI Center here said they were overwhelmed by the outpouring of appreciation and support by celebrities, military and civilian leaders, and most of all, their commander in chief

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Marines stand at attention during the "Saluting Those Who Serve" gala during the playing of the Marines Hymn. Photo by Donna Miles

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"It felt like a tingle going up my spine," said Sgt. Darin Young, a Marine Corps Reservist assigned to a Rations Company here, as he and an estimated 6,000 servicemembers, veterans, family members and guests filed from the huge sports arena following the show.

Young summed up the general reaction among troops feted during a two-and-a- half-hour program of music, videos and accolades for America's armed forces. "It made me feel very proud," he said.

Kelsey Grammer, star of the hit TV program, "Frazier," served as emcee for the gala, setting the tone for the afternoon by praising the men and women in uniform and thanking them for their service and sacrifice. He also paid tribute to the dozens of Medal of Honor recipients, as well as troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan and families of fallen troops, in the audience.

Country singer John Michael Montgomery offered a rendition of his "Letters from Home" hit, performed against a backdrop of videos showing deployed troops receiving letters and care packages from their loved ones.

Darryl Worley wowed the crowd with his performance of "Have You Forgotten?" a song that offers a stark reminder of the terrorist attacks against the United States that drove the country into the global war on terror.

"I just loved that song!" Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said as he shook hands, posed for photos and signed autographs for troops following the event. "I could have listened to that five more times!"

Lee Greenwood, Country Music Academy male vocalist of the year, performed the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and Latin-pop icon Gloria Estefan sang a soulful rendition of a song she wrote for her late father, a Vietnam veteran.

"We're very proud of all the sacrifices you make for this country," Estefan told the crowd. "We will never take that for granted. We love you!"

Rhythm and blues vocalist Heather Headley and gospel great BeBe Winans rounded out the musical headliners, and military bands and drill teams from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard offered their own show-stopping performances.

The festivities included dramatic readings of letters sent home from veterans of wars from the Civil War to the global war on terror, presented by celebrities including actors Karri Turner and Richard Roundtree, Miss USA Shandi Finnessey and former President George H.W. Bush.

"Saturday Night Live" star Darrell Hammond added levity to the event with impersonations of President Bush, Rumsfeld and former President Clinton, and "The Late Show" host David Letterman offered a videotaped tribute to the troops, including a rundown of "10 Signs that Your Commanding Officer Might Be Nuts."

For Army Maj. Robert Sanchez, an intelligence officer slated to deploy to Afghanistan in three weeks, the gala proved to be the perfect send-off. "What an opportunityto sit here with my family and experience the gratitude of this administration and our commander in chief!" he said. "I absolutely loved it!"

"It feels wonderful," agreed Army Sgt. Andrew Butterworth, a Walter Reed Army Medical Center patient being treated after losing a leg in Iraq during a mid- November rocket-propelled-grenade attack. "What this tells us is that everyone is still standing behind us and appreciates what we do."

Petty Officer 2nd Class G.W. Odom, who traveled to the gala from the Branch Dental Clinic in Virginia Beach, said it "felt great" to know that in the midst of all the inaugural activity taking place in Washington, America's leaders chose to begin the festivities by honoring the military. "It's great to see them showing their support, and to know that they haven't forgotten about us," he said.

Army Master Sgt. William Montrose, a member of 2nd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, N.C., echoed their sentiments. "This shows the real appreciation that the administration has for the military," he said.

Marine Corps Sgt. Jean-Claude Gebara from the Marine Corps University at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., said the gala was particularly meaningful in light of the thousands of U.S. troops in harm's way waging the war on terror. "It's a true honor to be here," he said. "It feels great."

"We're really honored and touched to be here," agreed Army Staff Sgt. William Gadberry, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who serves with the 16th Ordnance Battalion at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. "I feel honored and privileged to be a part of it."

Airmen 1st Class Darius Perry and Jennifer Perry, a husband-wife Air Force family stationed at Dover Air Force Base, Del., called the gala a welcome reprieve from the 12-hour days they and many of their fellow servicemembers typically put in as they support the war on terror.

"It's a real honor to be here," Darius said. "It's a big deal to get to play a part in it."

Army Staff Sgt. Justin Grieve, a member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, "The Old Guard," at Fort Myer, Va., said he wouldn't have missed the opportunity to attend the gala. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing," said Grieve, who served three deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan over the course of four years with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). "My only wish is that more soldiers could have been here, especially those who are deployed."

In a sense, troops in Iraq and Afghanistan did get to participate, via satellite broadcasts to Baghdad, Iraq, and Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan.

Staff Sgt. Justin Dierks from the Wyoming Air National Guard's 153rd Airlift Wing, who received a Purple Heart for wounds he received in Iraq, said the outpouring of support during the "Saluting Those Who Serve" event reinforced the importance of everything he and his fellow servicemembers are doing in support of the nation.

"It feels pretty good and motivates you to want to do it all again," he said.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageGospel singer Bebe Winans sings a tribute to President Bush and the U.S. military on the stage of the MCI Center in Washington, D.C., during the "Saluting Those Who Serve" gala, Jan. 18. Also on stage are first lady Laura Bush, Vice President Dick and Mrs. Lynne Cheney, and a star-studded cast of celebrity performers and entertainers. Photo by Donna Miles  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageDefense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld signs autographs for servicemembers following the Jan. 18 gala at the MCI Center in Washington, D.C. "This was absolutely the best!" Rumsfeld exclaimed following the program. Photo by Donna Miles  
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