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Inauguration event pays tribute to U.S. armed forces

WASHINGTON—Marine Cpl. Denis Silva Torres, after he entered Iraq, wrote that the sight of Iraqi children begging for food and water "broke my heart."

Lt. Kathy McConkey Zeller, a nurse and Army reservist, recalled how special forces soldiers in Afghanistan sat for hours with their dead comrades: "It was terrible, more than I could bear."

On Tuesday, Silva Torres and McConkey Zeller had a chance to read the intensely personal observations from their war letters to a select audience: President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 60 Medal of Honor recipients and 7,000 members of the armed forces and their families.

There was plenty of military music, patriotic fervor and heartfelt thanks for wartime sacrifices during the first major event of inaugural festivities, a tribute to the U.S. military at the MCI Center in downtown Washington that was seen by troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hosted by actor Kelsey Grammer, the event featured plenty of big names. Gloria Estefan sang "Your Picture," a tribute to her father, a Vietnam veteran. Country singers performed their hits. Darryl Worley sang "Have You Forgotten?" and John Michael Montgomery did "Letter From Home."

Jay Leno and David Letterman sent video messages and comedian Darrell Hammond told a few jokes, impersonating Donald H. Rumsfeld with his trademark squint as the defense secretary watched and laughed.

But a running theme during the big-stage production was the experiences and sacrifices of soldiers, as depicted in letters they and their families had written, from the Civil War to Iraq. They were taken from "War Letters," an anthology put together by Andrew Carroll.

Letters from a freed slave, a World War I nurse and the mother of a soldier who was killed in Vietnam were read by such celebrities as football Hall of Famer Lynn Swann and Shandi Finnessey, Miss USA.

But Silva Torres, who left Nicaragua at age 7 and grew up in Hialeah, Fla., and McConkey Zeller of Toledo, Ohio, had a chance to read their own letters.

"This was quite an honor, and I felt I was speaking for the members of the armed forces who could not be there," said Silva Torres, 24. "I was just trying to convey in the letter some of the good and bad things we saw in Iraq."

Silva Torres wrote the letter in April 2003 to his fiancee's parents, as his unit guarded convoys in southern Iraq. After four years in the Marines, he'll take courses at Broward Community College and plans a career in law enforcement.

Another emotional high point of the tribute came when one other letter writer read his own words. He was a young Navy lieutenant when his plane was shot down in the Pacific in 1944.

"The day seemed friendly and innocent," wrote George H.W. Bush, who would become the 41st president. Then it turned "awful and sinister."

Bush read from his letter home—about seeing his plane's wings on fire, not knowing whether his crew was alive, and bailing out near hostile forces. He was rescued by a nearby sub.

Then the former president gave way to his son, who'll take the oath of office Thursday for his second term.

"I want you to know how gratified I am for your service and sacrifice," President Bush, joined by first lady Laura Bush, told the cheering throng. "I want you to know how proud I am to be your commander in chief."

Bush said elections in Afghanistan and Iraq would be "landmark events in the history of liberty, and none of it would be possible without the courage and determination of the United States armed forces."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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