- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2008

When Hollywood legend Mickey Rooney joined the Army in 1944, World War II was raging in Europe and the Pacific, and he was brought in to entertain the troops.

To him, like many others, Memorial Day has a special meaning.

“We were doing shows at 1 and 2 in the morning. We were seeing schools turned into operating rooms,” he recalled yesterday.

“At one time, we were in the forest, with bombs coming down around us. I said, ‘Hang on, fellas; God will protect us,’ ” the 87-year-old said after serving as honorary grand marshal of yesterday’s National Memorial Day Parade.

“We played to heroes. I’m just glad to have been a part of it.”

The annual Memorial Day tribute to the men and women who sacrificed their lives for the United States took place across the region.

The parade made its way along Constitution Avenue in a stream of veterans carrying flags, high-school marching bands and even a couple dressed as George and Martha Washington.

This year’s parade paid special tribute to soldiers in the Army and Army Reserve, including Command Sgt. Maj. Leon Caffie, the highest-ranking enlisted man in the Reserve.

Actors Gary Sinise and Joe Mantegna joined Mr. Rooney as honorary grand marshals.

The joyous mixed with the somber when Miss America 2008 Kirsten Haglund sang “America, the Beautiful,” which was shortly followed by a riderless horse, honoring fallen military leaders.

“Every time you get a chance, stop and tell a soldier, ‘Thanks for your service’; stop and tell a family ‘Thanks for your service,’ ” said Lt. Gen. Jack C. Stultz, chief of the Army Reserve.

Earlier in the day, President Bush made the last visit of his presidency to Arlington National Cemetery to honor the men and women of the U.S. military who have passed on.

“On this Memorial Day, I stand before you as the commander in chief and try to tell you how proud I am,” Mr. Bush told an audience of military figures, veterans and their families. Of the men and women buried in the hallowed cemetery, he said, “They’re an awesome bunch of people, and the United States is blessed to have such citizens.”

Each white tombstone was marked with a small American flag.

In his eulogy, Mr. Bush singled out Army Spc. Ronald Tucker of Fountain, Colo., who died less than a month ago in Iraq in a bomb attack as he returned from helping build a soccer field for Iraqi children.

The president also spoke of two Navy SEALs, Nathan Hardy of Durham, N.H., and Michael Koch of State College, Pa., who often headed into battle wearing American flags on their chests under their uniforms. The two died Feb. 4 in Iraq and are buried side by side at Arlington.

Among hundreds participating in the parade on a near-perfect day, with 80-degree temperatures and blue skies, was retired U.S. Army Gen. Volney F. Warner.

“It’s great that people are interested not only in their own salvation, but in their country’s,” said Gen. Warner, reflecting upon more than 33 years of military service as he was waiting to lead the Vietnam veterans in the parade.

Gen. Warner enlisted in the Navy in 1944, when he was 17. He then served 32 years in the Army, after he turned 18.

He and wife Janice said Americans should serve their country for at least two years - whether in the military or volunteering.

“If people turn more outward, than inward, the better our country is in the long-run” Gen. Warner said.

The couple’s two sons and grandchildren have enlisted to serve, but most of their thoughts yesterday were with the fallen soldiers, including 1st Lt. Laura Walker, their granddaughter who was killed in 2005 by a roadside bomb in Iraq.

Don and Marilyn Scott, of Ventura, Calif., were among the thousands who came to the District for the Memorial Day weekend.

Mr. Scott, who was stationed with the Air Force in Germany from 1961 to 1965, said soldiers serving now “have an extreme type of weight” to bear - from increasingly unpredictable urban warfare to never knowing when they could be re-deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq.

Mrs. Scott said she thinks the respect for men and women who voluntarily place themselves in harm’s way has greatly increased in past years.

“While we don’t agree with the [Iraq] war, those who are over there are kind of stuck in a manner,” she said.

Mr. Rooney, who began entertaining at age 4, was part of a three-man troupe during World War II with an accordionist and singer.

“I would do imitations, tell a couple of jokes,” Mr. Rooney said.

He said he received a Bronze Star on the recommendation of Gen. George S. Patton.

“It’s important when you’re young to remember things like the Ten Commandments and the ‘Star-Spangled Banner,’ ” Mr. Rooney told The Washington Times. “Honesty and integrity and caring and sharing are things people seem to have forgotten about.”

Mr. Rooney still tours the country with wife Jan in “Let’s Put on a Show.” Their next show is next month in Atlantic City, N.J.

“I always wear my tuxedo; I always wear my Bronze Star,” he said. “I care and my wife cares about the United States and our soldiers.”

He also wants children to learn American values, he said.

“I want all of our youngsters to grow up with the chance, a chance to fulfill their lives,” he said last evening. “God bless America.”

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