WASHINGTON — It was bitter cold outside, but servicemembers inside the MCI Center basked in the warmth of praise from their commander in chief as inauguration festivities kicked off in the nation’s capital Tuesday.

Taking the stage toward the end of the two-hour “Saluting Those Who Serve” program at Washington’s premier sports and concert venue, President Bush told the 7,000-plus troops in attendance that America is indebted to them.

“I can think of no better way to begin [the inauguration] than to celebrate our freedom and to thank those who make it possible.”

Bush ended the star-studded event by listing the U.S. military’s achievements in the global war on terror, including elections in Afghanistan and soon, Iraq.

“These are landmark events in history, and none of this would have been possible without the United States Armed Forces.”

Servicemembers from each branch, as well as family members and guests, watched as host Kelsey Grammer marshalled musicians, comedians and special guests who read letters sent home by troops in conflicts from the Civil War to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Country singer John Michael Montgomery had a slightly different take with his song “Letters From Home.”

Air Force Maj. Patrick Clements of Epworth, Iowa, who has deployed for operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, said the song has special meaning for those in the field.

“That song hits home. It hits home hard. Until you’ve deployed, you just have no idea … .”

“Saturday Night Live” impressionist Darryl Hammond was on hand, and noting how he loved being surrounded by thousands of troops, dared a bully he went to sixth grade with to “come kick my ass now!”

Hammond told Stripes backstage why he wanted to be there.

“My dad was in the Korean War, and I’m partial to what they go through. We can’t protect ourselves against the bad guys — we depend on them. Think about what we love. College games, the [NFL] playoffs, the World Series — nothing happens without them.”

Army Sgt. Phillip Ware, 26, of Washington, a radio repairman who said he is deploying in 2006, laughed along at the event’s jokes, but turned serious when asked about his future.

“I have mixed feelings [about deploying] — we have soldiers dying left and right. But I signed up for this, and sometimes, like a running back, you gotta square your shoulders and charge into the line.”

Navy Corpsman Neath Williams, 23, of Bowling Green, Ky., followed his Marines throughout Iraq last year, including nasty stints outside Baghdad and Nasiriyah. He loved the event, and pointed out how the Marines stood for the Navy’s official song “Anchors Aweigh” and laughed when various services roared when they were mentioned.

“It’s pretty amazing to see all the guys from the different services. And we get to see the president. It’s pretty awesome!”

Marine Sgt. Levi Halford, 23, of Orlando, Fla., who teaches field communications to officers at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia, was nervous at first about coming.

“It seemed like a good place to attack, the inauguration, but it’s an honor to be here.”

Halford was in Afghanistan with the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, and was somewhat less enthusiastic than the president about our successes there.

“It’s gonna be many years before it can stand on its own two feet.”

Some of the people on stage read historic letters home. Others, including the president’s father, George H. W. Bush, read their own.

One such person was Lt. Kathy McConkey Zeller, an Army Reserve nurse, who read a letter she wrote from Afghanistan last April.

“Soldiers here become frustrated that Afghanistan isn’t mentioned more often on CNN. They feel people think they are fighting ‘last year’s war’ and that they are being forgotten.”

Clements worried about that same thing.

“I just want to tell [those deployed] ‘Thank you.’ And I’ll be back. Keep the tent warm.”

Meanwhile, backstage ...

Kelsey Grammer was on in 20 minutes, and disaster struck. He couldn’t find his pants.

Grammer, Dr. Frasier Crane of television’s legendary series “Cheers” and the successful spin-off “Frasier,” lurched around backstage at the MCI Center with his unique gait, calling out for members of his staff.

“I don’t have my pants!” he repeated as several color guard members carrying state flags walked past. “Yes, how are you? Good to see you … .”

Finally, an assistant showed up.

“What size are those? I need 36-33 … .”

Several security members offered their trousers as they looked on.

“Let me have those,” Grammer finally told his assistant. They disappeared back into his dressing room. Such is the price for hanging out with stars.

— Patrick Dickson

Political bug bites Lynn Swann

You heard it here first, folks: Former Pittsburgh Steelers great Lynn Swann says he is planning a run for governor of Pennsylvania.

The acrobatic wide receiver and NFL Hall of Famer won four Super Bowls with the Steelers. He spoke with Stripes backstage as he waited to go on to read a letter from a slave-soldier in the Civil War, writing home to his wife.

Asked what he had to say to readers in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said:

“To all the Pennsylvanians over there, if they’re home in 2006: If I run for governor, I want their vote!”

Asked if he was ready to declare his candidacy, Swann would only say that he is “filing paperwork, going through the process.”

But he was ready to pick winners for this weekend’s conference finals. No surprise here: “Steelers and Eagles. It’ll be an all-Pennsylvania Super Bowl!”

— Patrick Dickson

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