MOUNT AIRY — Before Eric Poulsen sings, "God Bless the USA," he encourages people to join in and wave the flag.
At Watkins Park Saturday, he didn't have to ask.
More than 1,000 people had climbed the park's highest hill in thelate-afternoon sun to rally 'round Old Glory and pay tribute to the troops in the Persian Gulf.
They sang, cheered, cried and held their flags high as the town made a video of the event.
Organizers plan to ship copies overseas, hoping the troops will enjoy the messagesof love and support.
Diane and Bill Hoffman joined the rally to show their support for their 19-year-old son, Chris.
In his last letter home to Frederick, he said the crew aboard the USS San Jacinto, deployed in the Persian Gulf since October, had heard of the protestsagainst the war.
The Hoffmans said they wanted to "neutralize anydamage done by peace protesters."
They made a banner saying "Chris and Crew, We Support You. Happy Voyage Home" and headed to the park, hoping for a good turnout.
"When we pulled around the corner on Route 27 and saw all the people, our hearts soared," said Diane Hoffman.
Hundreds of cars bedecked with flags and yellow ribbons and emblazoned with patriotic slogans were filing into the park.
The town's VFW offered a seemingly endless supply of flags.
The auxiliaryserved hot chocolate, although the unseasonably warm weather kept most people from taking advantage of the free drinks.
Senior citizens made yellow ribbon corsages.
Peggy Kauffman circulated cards among the crowds, asking for messages she could mail to troops.
TammyDugan asked a friend to help her hold the 4-by-5-foot banner on which she printed "United We Stand" across the Stars and Stripes.
"I had to borrow a van to get it here," said Dugan as she and Linda Brightwell held the sign up to the video camera. "I want everyone over there to know we care."
Mayor Gerald R. Johnson thanked his staff fororganizing the effort.
"We came up with the video, showing the rally and a bonfire, and everybody pitched in," said Katie Setzer, adding that about 1,500 people attended. "We were overwhelmed at the response."
Rev. Dennis Yocum, pastor of Calvary United Methodist Church, prayed for courage for the troops in their hour of trial and askedfor mercy for civilians caught in the war.
"From this wind-swept hill in Mount Airy to the desert sands, our flag flies high," said Representative Beverly B. Byron, D-6th, before leading the gathering inthe Pledge of Allegiance.
Many of those attending had a connection to those serving in the gulf.
Others, like Tom Trott of Frederick, wanted to express pride to all the troops.
"Vietnam is never going to happen again," said Trott, a former Marine who fought there. "We are not going to protest.
"We are going to show our volunteer kids that we support them and are proud of them."
Tom Nikirk, a charter member of the Vietnam Veterans Chapter 304, said his group was "100 percent" behind the rally.
"I know what it's like to fight a war without the full support of the American people," he said. "It makes the duty doubly hard."
Denise Duafala, who lives in town, had apersonal message for her husband, Lance Cpl. Richard Duafala, a Marine stationed on the front lines.
"We love you," she said as she held her 3-year-old daughter. "We hope you'll be home to see our new baby this May."
Becky Linton, 20, also of Mount Airy, told her fiance Chris Tilden to hurry home.