WASHINGTON -- The nation paid tribute to the "Greatest Generation" for the 60th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day at the World War II Memorial on the National Mall May 8.
The focus was on the veterans present and the incredible sacrifices they made to protect freedom at home and abroad.
Secretary of the Army Francis Harvey attributed the "blessings of liberty and the 60 years of prosperity that have followed to those who fought in World War II" in his address to the estimated crowd of more than 1,000 World War II and their families.
"The United States today stands as the beacon of hope for the world because of what these Americans accomplished: victory over defeat, democracy over fascism, good over evil," Harvey said.
Today the grandchildren of that generation also were held up as equals to their heroic grandparents, Harvey noted. They, like their grandparents before them, stepped forward when their country needed them and, like their grandparents, are making incredible sacrifices in the current terror war.
"Just as Pearl Harbor was the call to arms for that generation, the attacks of Sept. 11 served as the call to duty for today's generation," Harvey said. "And just as America's Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines won the second World War, so too will today's generation, the grandsons and granddaughters of the greatest generation, win the global war on terrorism."
Harvey told the group gathered that they had set the example for the today's service members.
He illustrated his point with stories of two service members - one who lost his life to save those of his fellow soldiers and another who, despite losing both legs to a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Iraq, wants to return to duty as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot.
"The courage and selfless service of (the two soldiers) and countless other soldiers serving today is a direct result of the values and influence of the greatest generation," Harvey said. "They answered the call to duty and set a shining example for today's generation."
World War II-decorated veteran and former Sen. Bob Dole echoed the Army secretary's sentiments when he addressed the crowd.
He said that President Bush's inaugural address had heartened him with its message of support for democracy and freedom for all people. "As he spoke," Dole said about the president's January speech, "I was reminded that for better or for worse, that commitment must constantly be renewed.
"We're proud of what we achieved 60 years ago and what we have become," Dole noted. "We're also proud of the brave Americans who continue to renew our commitment to freedom and democracy."
He asked the veterans present to stand, "so we can get an idea of who really won this war."
He then asked the crowd gathered to look at those standing and imagine what life might be like had these "young men" not prevailed. What language would the nation be speaking? Dole inquired. Would U.S. citizens have the right to assemble on the National Mall for such a ceremony?
"Then take another look at these young men and thank them for their service," Dole said. "There are five magic words: 'Thank you for your service.' It makes our whole day if you tell us that, maybe our whole week, maybe our whole month."
Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Gordon H. Mansfield commended the veterans not only for their courage and determination in war, but also because he said their attitudes didn't change upon their return home.
"When they came home, those people in uniform, those men and women, took on the honor title of 'veteran,' rolled up their sleeves and went about the business of reinventing America," Mansfield said. "The change agent that made that reinvention possible was the G.I. Bill of Rights."
The effects of that bill of rights can be felt in virtually every aspect of society, he noted. The G.I. Bill provided the opportunity for service members to attend college, which created leaders of industry, doctors, scientists, city planners and statesmen, Mansfield said.
"They were responsible for our space programs, for breakthroughs in medicine, the development of our suburbs and the rise of America as the world's most respected economy," he added.
James Gillespie, of Christiansburg, Va., was among World War II veterans at the ceremony. He described himself as a former sailor who "brought the boys into the beaches." He came today because his daughters, who were also in attendance, thought he needed to be here.
"My daughters brought me up here," he said. "I'll be 81 in June and they wanted me to see this. (The ceremony) is a great honor."
Gillespie's view mirrored the overwhelming sentiment among attendees -- that the observance of the day they worked so hard for so long ago and so far away was indeed, an honor.
"This ceremony was great," said former Navy radioman Avon R. Blevins. "I was glad to stand in for all my buddies who couldn't' be here."