ARLINGTON, Va. - Mildred Ferrin Andrews trembled as she walked down the marble steps leading to the Tomb of the Unknowns yesterday afternoon, full of memories of those with whom she served during World War II.
After the wreath was placed and "Taps" was played, Mrs. Andrews sobbed.
"Today was for all the people I knew in the service,'' the Toledoan said afterward. "It was all for them.''
Mrs. Andrews was one of four members of the Conn-Weissenberger American Legion Post in West Toledo chosen to take part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the tomb.
Joining Mrs. Andrews were World War II Navy veterans Harry Spencer, Gene Gorski, and Mort Edgington.
Mrs. Andrews served in the Army Air Corps and was a dental assistant helping dentists repair war wounds and other ailments. During her service, the Rockland, Maine, native met her future husband, Louis, who was from Temperance. They later married and moved to Ohio; Mr. Andrews died in 1995.
After the ceremony at Arlington, the sergeant who guided them through it made a point of shaking each veteran's hand and making sure he made eye contact before saying: "Thank you for your service."
They are words being shared freely throughout Washington this week as officials, friends, family, and even strangers have expressed their gratitude to veterans of all ages and stripes.
One teacher leading a school group came up to Mr. Spencer at the National World War II Memorial. "We appreciate what all you did for the country,'' she told him.
For many of the veterans, the unsolicited appreciation has surprised and touched them. "I've never had so many compliments thrown my way,'' Mr. Spencer said. "I think the memorial has really made the people stop and think.''
Today, the country will dedicate the National World War II Memorial with an estimated 200,000 on hand along The Mall and at the MCI Center. President Bush will speak, as will other dignitaries, including former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole and U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, the Toledo Democrat who first proposed the legislation calling for the construction of the memorial.
The $174 million, oval-shaped memorial sits between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. It honors the estimated 16.1 million men and women who served during the war and those who sacrificed on the homefront.
Yesterday, Miss Kaptur and U.S. Rep. Ralph Regula, (R., Navarre) honored the late Roger Durbin, the Richfield Township trustee who first raised the issue of a monument to Miss Kaptur in 1987. The lawmakers presented Mr. Durbin's granddaughter, Melissa Growden, with a proclamation from Gov. Bob Taft that recognizes Mr. Durbin, who served as a tank mechanic for the Army's 10th Armored Division.
As local and national media descended on the memorial yesterday, Miss Kaptur was one of the more popular officials.
But what was organized as a press event turned into a Toledo reunion with the congressman. Lester Bell, a Toledo Edison retiree who traveled to Washington from Florida, lived in Toledo for a long time. He stopped and talked with her.
So did Emmett Beavers II, a Toledoan who traveled with his son, Emmett III, and his friend, Sylvia Clark. A veteran of the Army Air Corps, Mr. Beavers was "Mr. Fixit" at a number of air bases in Ireland, England, and the Continent.
"I was a troubleshooter who went everywhere,'' Mr. Beavers said.
Now 84, the 1940 Scott High School graduate said he made the trip to see the reward of his wartime efforts.
"I have a special interest in seeing what I fought for,'' he said.
At Arlington, Mrs. Andrews was visibly relieved after the wreath-laying. She had worried about it for weeks: She had been in rehabilitation for a back injury and wasn't sure if she would be able to make it. But she was determined. With the help of her daughter, Melinda Parkinson, and her husband, Gary, she prevailed.
"I just decided I've got to do it,'' she said. "I didn't want to let the post down, and my family and friends.''
She remembered the first time she heard "Taps'' - she had just joined the Army Air Corps and was in basic training. "I was a long way from home - I cried all the way through it,'' she recalled.
Mrs. Andrews had special admiration for the sergeant who coordinated the ceremony. He was gracious to all and made sure the pace accommodated Mrs. Andrews. "Afterward he came back and said, 'God bless you,'●" she said, pausing to cry some more.
"I'll never forget this one.''
If not for a little exercise in Washington muscle - politics - the group wouldn't have gotten the chance to lay the wreath at all.
Jack Pietras, a Vietnam War veteran who was one of the main architects of the post's trip, knew the veterans would want to lay a wreath. But he was rejected when he went through the regular channels.
Then a friend of his daughter, who worked for U.S. Rep. John Boehner (R., West Chester), got involved. Within three weeks, Mr. Pietras got the good news: They would be one of the few groups honored to lay a wreath.
"It was a big thing and it turned out great for them,'' he said.
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Mildred Ferrin Andrews trembled as she walked down the marble steps leading to the Tomb of the Unknowns yesterday afternoon, full of memories of those with whom she served during World War II. After the wreath was placed and "Taps" was played, Mrs. Andrews sobbed.