Marilyn Everhart rode 26 hours on a bus from Jackson, Miss., to the steps of the Capitol to show support for her son, Sgt. Charles Everhart, who is with the 101st Airborne Division.
Everhart was one of many thousands of people who gathered yesterday on a perfectly cloudless spring afternoon at a "Rally for the Troops" sponsored by Citizens United Foundation and Young America's Foundation to support the soldiers in Iraq, as well as President Bush, and to send a message to war protesters that they don't speak for all Americans.
People came from the District, Virginia and Maryland and from as far away as Mississippi, Tennessee and Indiana. Many wore shirts adorned with the American flag, and many carried posters with pictures of their sons and daughters, husband and wives, and sisters and brothers who are fighting for their country in the Middle East.
The rally featured country music with a patriotic theme, a roaring procession of a couple hundred motorcycle-riding veterans who made the trip from the Sunset Grill in Annandale, a rousing rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" by Daniel Rodriguez, the singing New York policeman, and speeches by radio talk show host G. Gordon Liddy and other celebrities.
"It took us 26 hours to get here," said Everhart, "and we're getting back onto the bus to go home at 8 o'clock tonight. This is important to us because my son is proud to be an American, proud to be in the Army and proud to be doing whatever the president asks him to do. And we believe in the direction this country is going in."
The rally began at noon, but by 10:30 a.m., several hundred people were gathered on the Mall. Police estimated that the crowd grew to 4,000 to 5,000 people and reported no trouble.
The participants included Greg Jones of Manassas, who parked his Dodge 4x4 pickup on Independence Avenue. The truck sports customized license plates: "NO LIBRL."
"I'm here to support the troops," he said, as he walked toward the Mall with two friends who rode with him. "I'm tired of the liberal media showing all the antiwar demonstrations. I'm all for freedom of speech, but this is the wrong time to be having those antiwar demonstrations, with the troops over there."
Floyd Brown, executive director of Young America's Foundation, an educational organization that promotes conservative ideas on college campuses, said the rally originally was planned to show support for the troops. The theme changed last week when Baghdad fell.
"Now it is a celebration of the victory and a remembrance of those who have died in the war," he said.
Faith Smith, 20, and Angela Espinoza, 21, waved posters with pictures of their husbands. They drove 10 hours from Syracuse, Ind., for the rally, arriving in the District at 6 yesterday morning.
Smith has been married less than a year to Spec. Johnny Smith, 20, of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. He deployed in November and last spoke with his wife seven weeks ago.
Her friend Espinoza has been married almost two years to her high school sweetheart Spec. Alberto Espinoza, 22, of the 293rd Infantry Regiment. She spoke to him on Friday. "He said , 'I love you, I miss you, I'm ready to come home,' " she said.
The two women wore sweat shirts that said, "My husband's got your back." They lamented the demonstrations waged nearby by war protesters.
"They don't have to support our president. But our husbands, our sons are over there, and they're Americans no matter what," Smith said. "We have to support them."
Sarah Hartnett, 26, of Bowie also attended the rally for her husband, Sgt. John Hartnett, 25, an engineer for the Army. Hartnett deployed two weeks after their autumn wedding.
"I just want him to come home," Sarah Hartnett said, while holding her husband's picture. "It looks like we've done the right thing. I feel good about it. I'm proud of him."
Hartnett is in Iraq building bridges. His wife, her parents and his parents carried photos of him and posters that read "Building a Bridge to Peace."
"You don't hear a lot of pro-Bush, pro-war sentiment," Sarah Hartnett said. "I wanted to come out and show my support and let the guys know there are people who support them."
David and Anita Weimer of Grantsville, Md., waved a photo of their daughter, Angela Shunk, who is in the Air Force. Shunk left for Saudi Arabia on Feb. 1, her 23rd birthday. For a while, her parents had been able to e-mail and telephone her. Then the war started. David Weimer recalled their last conversation, which took place the Sunday before the war began.
"She said not to worry. She felt good about herself and about what she's doing," he said, holding a poster that read "Freedom in Iraq courtesy of the red, white and blue."
The Weimers said they drove 31/2 hours to lend a voice against the war protesters. "We stand behind what President Bush is doing. We stand behind our troops," said David Weimer. "We're all about freedom wherever it may be."
Cindy Cobb and her husband, Jim, were in the front row, a few feet from the stage. They came to Washington from their home in Kingsport, Tenn., on behalf of their son, Wes, 21, who is with the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq.
Jim Cobb had a message for the war protesters who were gathering at nearby Freedom Plaza yesterday morning. "We came to support our troops and my son and to let those pantywaisted liberals know there are some conservatives here to support the war."
The Cobbs said they last heard from their son March 10, when he called from Kuwait after waiting in line 91/2 hours to use the phone.
Wes Cobb, they said, has an academic scholarship to the University of Georgia waiting for him when he comes home. Cindy Cobb said it was a birthday present that got Wes interested in the military.
"His birthday is on December 25, and he always felt cheated on his birthday because of Christmas," she said. "So one year, we decided to get him something special."
They arranged for him to go sky diving. He fell in love with it and joined the Army with the hope that he'd make it to the 82nd Airborne. Now if she could get a message to their sky-diving son, it would be simple: "Tell him I love him."
Staff writer Allan Lengel contributed to this report.
Supporters of President Bush and the troops in Iraq listen to speeches and flash V signs for victory by United States and coalition forces over the Iraqi regime.