- - Monday, May 31, 2010

Thousands of spectators on Monday paid tribute to the members of the U.S. military at the sixth annual National Memorial Day Parade in Washington, as similar events across the country honored their hometown heroes who sacrificed their lives for freedom.

An estimated 300,000 people attended the parade that marched along Constitution Avenue, between 7th and 17th streets, their cheers becoming louder as the many marching bands’ trumpets passed by in the 90-degree heat. The annual parade is organized by the American Veterans Center, a nonprofit educational foundation dedicated to preserving the legacy of America's military.

Every year, AVC chooses to highlight one branch of the military to honor during the two-hour ceremony. This year, the group chose to recognize the Marines.

“In 2007, we decided to start a four-year rotation cycle for all the branches of the military,” said Tim Holbert, program director of the event this year.

This year also coincides with the 60th anniversary of the Korean War and the 65th anniversary of the World War II battle of Iwo Jima, Mr. Holbert explained, so it turned out to be a good time for the Marines.

Despite the sweltering heat, spectators began reserving seats along the sidewalk as early as 11:30 a.m. to see the parade that was to start at 2 p.m.

“I have a son in the Navy, so that makes me very proud,” said Kathy Wood, whose family was visiting Washington from Springhill, Tenn. They thought attending the parade could almost be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“It’s good that they’re showing what our country was founded on,” said Mrs. Wood, adding that she appreciated the patriotism in the parade. The parade featured everything from impressions of historic characters to processions of living veterans, including Gen. Peter Pace and retired Marine Corps drill instructor R. Lee Ermey.

“People should realize that supporting this parade is a way of giving back to the men and women serving in the armed forces,” Mr. Ermey said. This is the first time he has been to the parade in Washington, but he said, he has always supported parades in other cities.

Although honored as a separate branch, the Marines are technically under the U.S. Navy. Mr. Ermey is supporting a bill called the Marine Cause that would change the name of the branch to the U.S. Navy and Marines.

The goal is not to take away from “our Navy brothers and sisters,” Mr. Ermey said, but to let the Marine Corps be recognized as it were in the parade.

The parade cost an estimated $250,000, which the AVC received in donations from more than 40 corporate and individual donors. This year, Boeing donated the most and was the presenting sponsor.

As with any event in Washington, a small group of protesters gathered, at the corner of 7th and Constitution, and held signs that included messages such as “God hates Israel” and “Obama killed them.” Several parade attendees complained about the group’s timing.

“They can’t even mourn with the families of soldiers who were killed,” said 18-year-old Krystn Glenn. “So why are they here?”

The group left about 20 minutes after the parade began.

Earlier in the day, across the Potomac at Arlington National Cemetery, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who carried out the traditional wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknowns, said the country has “a sacred obligation” to make sure its servicemen and women are the best-equipped and best-supported troops in the world.

“As a nation, we pause to remember them,” Mr. Biden said. “They gave their lives fulfilling their oath to this nation and to us.”

The vice president, accompanied by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the country’s service members are “the heart and soul and, I would say, spine of this nation.” He said taking part in the annual ceremony was “the greatest honor of my public life.”

Meanwhile, President Obama had readied a similar message of gratitude for his appearance at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Illinois, and actually had taken the podium to give the address when the skies opened up with a quintessentially Midwestern late-spring downpour — thunder, lightning and high winds.

Under the cover of a large umbrella, Mr. Obama told thousands gathered before him that “a little bit of rain doesn’t hurt anybody, but we don’t want anybody being struck by lightning.” He asked people to return to their cars for their safety, and he retreated briefly to an administration building on the cemetery’s grounds. A few minutes later, Mr. Obama boarded a pair of buses to greet military families that came for the event.

After leaving the cemetery, Mr. Obama met privately with families of veterans and service members living at the Fisher House in Hines, Ill., which serves as a home away from home for family members whose loved ones are getting treatment at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Hines.

After returning to Washington on Monday evening, Mr. Obama, speaking to dozens of troops at Andrews Air Force Base, said that the meaning of Memorial Day is found in the story of ordinary Americans who become extraordinary for one simple reason: Love of country.

This article is based in part on wire service reports



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