A day for heroes

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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.

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