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Pentagon-sponsored march observes Sept. 11, honors troops

WASHINGTON—In a red shirt with a small "support our troops" logo on the front, Beth Bingham of Union, Ore., joined thousands of marchers here Sunday as they walked briskly across Memorial Bridge to the National Mall in commemoration of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

With a small video camera, she filmed the "America Supports You Freedom Walk," which was organized by the Pentagon in remembrance of Sept. 11—and also to rally support for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The dual message angered many Bush critics and peace activists who question the administration's motives in implicitly linking Sept. 11 with the war in Iraq, and introduced an element of political controversy to the anniversary commemoration.

The march kicked off next to where Flight 77 struck the Pentagon four years ago, killing 189 people. Marchers observed a moment of silence for the victims and sang "God Bless America."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld laid a wreath at Arlington Cemetery before starting the walk at 10 a.m.

"Today, history is being written by the valiant men and women of America's armed forces and by determined citizens who will do all they can to win the test of wills—for that is what it is—to keep our children from experiencing the heartbreak and terror of September 11," Rumsfeld said.

Participants were not allowed to carry signs and had to register with the Defense Department.

Mark Robbins, who works for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, explained why he was there: "To commemorate the events of 9/11, especially for the men and women overseas who are making sure 9/11 doesn't happen again."

Antiwar activists insist that connection is not logical.

"Today's so-called `Freedom Walk' sponsored by the Pentagon is a cynical exercise in an effort to shore up sagging support for the president and his war policy in Iraq," Brian Walker, national coordinator of the antiwar coalition A.N.S.W.E.R., said in a statement.

There was no such criticism, however, among the droves of people marching in white T-shirts with "Freedom March" written in bold, blue letters.

As the marchers flowed onto the National Mall under a sunny sky—a vivid reminder of the beautiful day four years ago—they were welcomed by country rockers Little Big Town. Singer Clint Black took to the stage around noon in his signature black cowboy hat, energizing the crowd.

Minutes after Black's first song, Bingham held a picture of her soldier son, garbed in desert camouflage, as she filmed her friend Bonnie Johnston of Deerfield, Wis., who has three sons in Iraq and Afghanistan and a daughter who recently returned from Iraq.

"Don't believe what you see on the news," Bingham said, narrating through the camera's microphone for her son, who is serving a second tour in Iraq. "People here love what you're doing." She plans to send the tape to her son.

Many in the crowd were government employees holding department signs, such as "Navy" or "DOD," in the air.

Pentagon employee Maria Kirksey-Burke, 36, who joined the walk with her husband and their 13-year-old daughter, Bria, gave a simple reason for the event: "In memory of 9/11," she said.

Her husband, Steven Burke, who works at the Smithsonian, said the event was about "supporting the cause."

Department of Justice employee Erin Smith summed up the events in plain terms as she and her husband pushed their young daughter in a stroller.

"Supporting the troops, support the effort in Iraq—just to send a positive message," she said.

Earlier Sunday, as a Marine bugler played "Taps" on the White House lawn, President Bush and first lady Laura Bush were joined by Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, for a moment of silence at 8:46 a.m., the moment the first plane struck the World Trade Center. The Bushes also lit a candle at St. John's Episcopal Church near the White House.

The march's sponsors included Lockheed Martin, AOL, Subway, McDonald's, Fox News, The Washington Times, and Stars and Stripes. "America Supports You" is a government Web site (www.americasupportsyou.mil) set up by the Bush administration that promotes and coordinates public support for the military.

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

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