- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 11, 2004

Area residents and community organizations yesterday paid tribute to U.S. troops from wars past and present by placing wreaths and reuniting with old friends at war memorials and hosting hot meals for homeless servicemen and servicewomen.

In some cases, men and women traveled from across the country to attend memorial services held for fallen troops at monuments throughout the Washington area.

President Bush laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. Across the Potomac River; the 82nd Airborne Division Association, the 1st Cavalry Division Association and the Department of Defense, for the first time, each placed a wreath at the National World War II Memorial, which opened in April on the Mall.

The veterans came to the District by the thousands yesterday, making it a day for war stories.

Ken Kokal, an 80-year-old retired truck driver from Cleveland, leaned heavily on a cane yesterday as he walked around the memorial. His eyes welled up as he described landing at Utah Beach as an Army combat medic on D-Day.

“I was scared. I was really scared. I was a kid too far away from home,” he said. “I saved a lot of wounded men that day. But a lot of them I couldn’t save. Sometimes you would just light a cigarette for them. That’s all that you could do.”

At the black granite wall of names that honors the Americans who died in the Vietnam War, a rifle platoon gathered for the second straight year. Until the initial reunion, most had not seen each other in the nearly four decades since leaving Vietnam in 1966.

“I couldn’t believe it. I saw the captain had broke down. Everyone was crying. It was one of the greatest moments of my life,” said Forest Brewer, a sergeant in that platoon. “We lost a lot of men over there. A couple of us got wounded and came back a little early. I got hit by some grenade shrapnel. Rudy, he was gut shot.”

Nearby, another group of old comrades shared memories of their airborne strike force. After winning the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism in Vietnam, Mike Perry, 59, returned to Tampa, Fla., and worked as a forest ranger for the state of Florida. He now has a daughter and a granddaughter.

Yesterday, his thoughts took him back to when he led an infantry squad.

“Airborne,” he shouted with his buddies.

Many Vietnam veterans attended the wreath-laying ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. Others attended similar ceremonies at the National Japanese American Memorial, the World War II Memorial in Annapolis, the U.S. Navy Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue and the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.

Other veterans marked the holiday a different way. About 50 homeless veterans were honored during a two-hour luncheon hosted by the Central Union Mission, which provides shelter for about 100 homeless people, and U.S. VETS, the largest organization dedicated to helping homeless veterans.

During the annual luncheon in Northwest, guest speakers who are veterans shared poignant memories of wartime. The homeless veterans got to call their loved ones for free using cell phones provided by Sprint.

“We believe as a Christian organization that people are called to service for our country and that we should honor those who answered that call,” said David Treadwell, the executive director of the mission, which is one of the country’s oldest social-service organizations and feeds about 500 people a day.

“Camaraderie is very important for former military people,” said the retired Army lieutenant colonel who served two terms in Vietnam.

Nanci Jewell, the director of the D.C. chapter of U.S. VETS, said the luncheon brings out many homeless veterans.

“It gives us an opportunity to honor them on Veterans Day, but also [provides us] the opportunity to connect them with the services they may need.”

The veterans were seated at tables draped in white cloths accented by patriotic centerpieces and a sprinkling of red and blue stars. They feasted inside the mission’s chapel that was transformed into a patriotic dining room awash in red, white and blue.

The menu included piping hot pot roast simmered in onions, mixed vegetables, mashed potatoes, juice and chocolate cake and brownies.

“This type of event is very important to me because it shows that there is an interest in veterans,” said Eddie Curtis, a Mississippi native who served five years in Vietnam. “So often veterans are overlooked, and there are so many things we need that we don’t get.”

Mr. Curtis, 52, said he lives throughout the District now.

“But when I was called upon to do my duty, I acted,” he said proudly.

He phoned home yesterday to say hello to his family, a very nice touch, he said, to top off the day.

“I called my folks in Mississippi, but nobody was home. I was just going to let them know I wouldn’t be home for Thanksgiving,” he said, “but, maybe for Christmas.”

For Cassandra Coleman, 45, the salute to veterans touched her heart. Ms. Coleman, who served in the Air Force as a jet mechanic from 1979 until 1985, said she appreciates the servicemen and servicewomen who preceded her.

“I can always appreciate those who came before me — those who paved the way for my future in the military,” said Ms. Coleman, who attended the luncheon for the first time yesterday. “It is so important to honor veterans because they put their lives on the line for our country.”

This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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