The skies rumbled with fighter jets and fireworks, and streets were full of cheering, flag-waving crowds as thousands of Desert Storm troops marched through a high-spirited and high-voltage victory parade Saturday in the nation's capital. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, in his familiar desert camouflage fatigues, led the way down Constitution Avenue _ preceded by a lone F-117 Stealth fighter that blazed through the clear blue sky _ setting off the parade of troops, bands and hardware.
And setting off tides of emotion and patriotism.
"Way to go, Schwarz!" cried Vicki Moore, of Pomfret, Md., one of the estimated 200,000 spectators who lined the parade route to the Pentagon and welcomed the Desert Storm men and women with cheers of "U.S.A., U.S.A." and signs of "We Love You" and "You Will Always Be Remembered."
The crowd had swollen to 800,000 by the time the fireworks were over shortly after 10 p.m., park police said.
"Great day," President Bush exclaimed from a reviewing stand.
About 8,800 troops, representing the half-million Americans who fought in the Persian Gulf war, marched solemnly in their battle uniforms, tears occasionally streaming down faces in appreciation of the obvious support.
"It's nice to be appreciated," said Army reservist Bruce Strauch, of Beltsville, Md., who served for four months in the gulf. "It's hard to put into words what this means. To see this tremendous outpouring of warmth and happiness _ it's great."
"I'm trying to be a brave soldier," said Megan Tipton, a teacher from Flossmoor, Ill., who fought back tears all day. "But it isn't working."
The $12-million celebration was the official welcome home for Desert Storm troops, although 65,000 of them remain in the Middle East. But many of those who attended on Saturday saw broader significance.
"I think in my heart I feel this is for me, too," said Walter C. Krauss, a retired Army sergeant from Burtonsville, who served in Vietnam during the 1968 Tet Offensive.
The display of military brawn was too much for a group of 200 or fewer protesters at Lafayette Park across from the White House, who held black and green balloons aloft and signs condemning the war.
But most of downtown Washington was wrapped up in one large American flag on Saturday. Visitors festooned their strollers, hats, earrings and even a pair of stilts with stars and stripes.
Spectators, who came from all over the country to see the largest military parade here in nearly half a century, bought Desert Storm "I Was There" T-shirts, commemorative plates, mugs, pins and programs. Children lined up to have their pictures taken with Desert Storm soldiers on the National Mall, or to have their faces made up with camouflage paint, or to walk through a Super Cobra helicopter on display.
"This is one of those days where I can't believe I'm getting paid to do my job," said Marine Lt. Seth Hensel, who flew the Cobra in the gulf. "Two months ago I was looking at this same bird in the desert. Here we are on the Mall in Washington. It's absolutely phenomenal."
Earlier, at a somber ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, Bush paid tribute there to the war's 376 fallen servicemen and women. His voice cracking with emotion, he said that America's dream of a commonwealth of freedom endures "because we dared risk our most precious asset, our sons and daughters .
. the finest troops any country has ever had."
Manton Ritch, of Charlestown, N.H., whose 20-year-old son, Todd, was killed in a non-combat motor vehicle accident in Saudi Arabia, was choked with tears during the memorial service. "A lot of us broke down, but we probably needed to. It's a sad day, but I've enjoyed every minute of it."
Ritch said he almost didn't attend Saturday's festivities. "I'm glad I changed my mind. This has all been beautiful. I can't even find words to explain it. I'm proud _ that says it all."
_ Information from the Washington Post and the Associated Press was used in this report.