Balm for Wounds Fresh & Forgotten

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 29, 2006

The entire West Lawn of the Capitol was filled last night with sad stories of old heroes from old wars and young heroes from new ones.

Images of B-17 bombers downed over Germany. POWs eating "bread" made of sawdust and potatoes. Hungry soldiers cooking snails in prison camps with candle wax while they waited for liberation, which came when Gen. George Patton finally rode in with his chrome helmet and pearl-handled pistols. Stories of the National Guard Charlie Company in Iraq, nicknamed the Black Sheep, that lost seven men in an instant.

And of phone calls home: "Mom, I promise you I will be back." But he came back in a steel casket. And now Mom bakes cookies for those still Over There and raises money for phone cards, "anything to let them know we still care."

The National Memorial Day Concert last night was dedicated to servicemen and -women from all wars, with a special tribute to the National Guard and to the pilots who flew in World War II. It was also a night of emotion as a new, uncertain war continues. A night of remembrance, a bit of salve for immediate sorrows and new "wounds of war."

The show, which was broadcast live on PBS, NPR and the American Forces Radio and Television Network, included dignitaries and actors and singers and patriots.

Colin Powell stood on the Capitol steps, speaking to troops who had just returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. "We remember the words of the prophet Isaiah -- to heal the broken-hearted and to comfort all who mourn. And we hear again the promise of the Beatitude: 'Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.' "

The troops sitting on green bleachers stood and cheered, some happy to be here but uncertain about whether they would be deployed again. "We are so glad to see you guys back home!" Lee Ann Womack shouted from the stage before singing "I Hope You Dance." Then she sang "God Bless America." And a few people put their hands on their hearts and cried.

Actor Joe Mantegna, who co-hosted the show, spoke of the price of freedom. Actor John Schneider sang "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother." Big & Rich saluted a Vietnam veteran whose story inspired their new song.

Actor Charles Durning told the story of Air Force pilot Corbin Willis Jr., who flew nearly 80 missions in World War II and Korea, survived a grueling prison camp near Berlin, only to come home and find his wife, who had been told he was missing in action, had remarried and was pregnant.

Gary Sinise, who played Captain Dan in "Forrest Gump," told of some Guardsmen who went to the Mideast from Louisiana and were part of Charlie Company. "Less than two months after their arrival in Iraq, two of the Bradleys were on patrol near Taji. Each one of the tanklike vehicles carries seven men. Out of nowhere, there was a huge explosion and then yellow light and flames. The first vehicle seemingly disappeared. . . . The explosion was so strong, it actually lifted the Bradley up in the air and moved it about 150 feet -- yet it weighed the same as two New York City buses." All seven inside died. Sinise paused: "The whole company was devastated, but they couldn't afford a grieving period. Two days later, they were back on patrol, however some of them cried for days. They still had the guys' phone numbers in their cellphones."

Actress Dianne Wiest read the story of a mother. "Kurt joined the National Guard after high school. The day after Kurt got deployed, that's the day his dad died. My son had to be taken off the bus to say goodbye to his dad. . . . I hugged him and told him, 'Just come back home safe. When he called me from Iraq, I would tell him how much I loved him. . . . 'Mama, I promise I'll come back.' . . . He came back . . . but he came back in a steel casket."

The bands played, the actors spoke, the singers sang, the bugles cried. Some of those watching cried, too. Sitting there in the middle of the capital in the middle of the war, some were conflicted, some sure.

Nancy Kancel, 71, was with daughter Mary Jean Kancel, 49, both decked out in red, white and blue. Stars and stripes from their hats down to Mary Jean's clogs and even the red-white-and-blue lawn chairs.

They've been coming here for seven years; Mary Jean wouldn't miss the night for anything. "She feels strongly nothing should be forgotten," Nancy said. "Without the World War II veterans, none of this would be here." Then she thought about Iraq. "In the beginning, I thought, yes, this is the right thing to do. But like a lot of people, I'm starting to have my doubts. I'm to the point right now, with so many people dying, maybe it should come to an end. I never, ever thought I would feel that way."

In the green bleachers, Sgt. 1st Class John Craig, who survived Fallujah, Baghdad and Katrina, could see progress being made in Iraq. "I think our leaders have done a good job. It's a slow process." He was looking forward to the part of the concert where 54 flags representing U.S. states and territories were unfurled on the stage.

Sgt. Marcie Wright, 24, who had just returned from Iraq, where she worked in an Army dining facility, sat in the bleachers three rows up. The sun turned purple as she waited for the concert to start. "When I was there, our base was under attack. When we go out in a convoy, I was attacked. People die over there. . . . At this point, I don't think it's possible to take all the troops out. It's chaos over there now. If we remove the troops prematurely, it's like you left a job unfinished." She said she may be deployed again to Iraq. "It is what it is. I don't feel one way or the other."

After an hour and a half, the concert ended. People rolled up their blankets, folded their flags and started filing out, heading home or to wherever they go with their memories. Behind them, the Capitol dome shone. But the sad stories told on that lawn lingered in the air.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company