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Gala honors those who serve

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Jan. 19, 2005) -- Those who fight Americaís wars were entertained by their own and by celebrities at an invitation-only event in the heart of the Nationís capital.

More than 7,500 Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines gathered at a state-of-the-art sports and entertainment facility here Jan. 18 to be honored for their service during a 55th Presidential Inauguration kickoff event titled "Saluting Those Who Serve."

President George W. Bush speaks to more than 7,500 servicemembers during a "Saluting Those Who Serve" celebration here Jan. 18. The gala was designed to honor the armed forces and was the first event in a week of inaugural celebrations. It included performances by military bands and honor guards and numerous celebrities. U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class F.T. Eyre.

Troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan were able to watch the event via satellite.

Honored guests of the event included President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura; Vice President Richard B. Cheney and his wife, Lynne; former President George H. W. Bush and his wife, Barbara; Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the four joint chiefs of staff.

The musical and entertainment-loaded salute, emceed by actor Kelsey Grammer, began with a series of performances by military bands and honor guards from all four services.

Included in the opening set were performances by the "President's Own" Marine Corps Band. The group performed patriotic music as well as a medley of the various services' songs, including the Air Force song.

The Air Force's "Airmen of Note" band and the Air Force Honor Guard Drill team were among the military entertainers.

Following the military-themed music and displays, Mr. Grammer presented the first celebrity act of the event, country music artist John Michael Montgomery.

Mr. Montgomery sang "Letters from Home," from his recent album of the same title. The song reveals the inner voice of a deployed Soldier after getting a letter from his parents: "I fold it up and put it in my shirt, pick up my gun and get back to work, and it keeps me drivin' on, waitin' on letters from home," he sang.

Other entertainers included Gloria Estefan and Darryl Worley, as well as taped TV appearances by talk show hosts Jay Leno and David Letterman.

Comedian Darrell Hammond of "Saturday Night Live" drew laughs from the crowd with impersonations of former President William J. Clinton and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. Joking aside, Mr. Hammond told gathered military guests that Americans are indebted to them for what they enjoy.

"We civilians Ö we get to experience Godís miracle of freedom because of you," he said.

Peppered amongst the country music acts and comedy were monologues by entertainers who read from actual correspondence between deployed servicemembers and their loved ones back home. The letters were dated as early as the Civil War and as recent as Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Perhaps the most moving monologue of the day came from former President George H.W. Bush. He stood center stage and recounted a war experience of his own during World War II, telling about his experience of bailing out of an aircraft over water and his subsequent rescue by a Navy submarine.

The finale of the event was President Bush's address to the crowd.

"Whether you serve in the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard, each of you has stepped forward to serve," the president said. "You have risked your lives in faraway mountains and arid deserts, in perilous skies and on the high seas, to defend liberty and to free those trapped by tyranny."

The president told the crowd that freedom is spreading across the globe because of their efforts.

"The promise of liberty is spreading across the world," he said. "In the last four years, more than 50 million people have joined the ranks of the free. The people of Afghanistan have thrown off an outlaw regime and chosen a president in the first free elections in that nation's 5,000-year history. And in coming days, the Iraqi people will have their chance to go to the polls.

"These are landmark events in the history of liberty. And none of it would have been possible without the courage and the determination of the United States armed forces," he said.

The freedom America's military services provide, he said, protect not just Americans today, but Americans in the future.

"Your sacrifice has made it possible for our children and grandchildren to grow up in a safer world," he said.

Still, the president said, there is danger. And it is America's servicemembers who would face that danger -- and make it go away.

"We still face terrorist enemies who wish to harm our people and are seeking weapons that would allow them to kill on an unprecedented scale," he said. "These enemies must be stopped, and you are the ones who will stop them."