Flags and Applause Mark Capital Parade

Beyond the fireworks and tanks lie domestic problems from health care to alcohol - a letter from Washington

TANKS. Helicopters. A Patriot missile. And troops, troops, troops - 8,000 of them in sand-and-green desert fatigues marching under a brilliant blue sky. Last weekend's grand parade down one of Washington's broad boulevards highlighted several days of celebration here - from a massive weapons display to gigantic fireworks - that marked this year's smashing military victory in the Gulf war. For some critics' taste, they marked the occasion expensively, at a cost of $12 million.

During these same days, however, the nation's capital also saw sobering new evidence of American society's unresolved domestic problems, from alcohol use by high school students and inadequate health insurance for Americans to math deficiencies among children of several grades.

In any case Washington proved once again that whatever its shortcomings it excels at parades, as upwards of 800,000 enthusiastic onlookers would attest.

Saturday's parade in Washington was also prologue to today's march in New York City. But the city that over the decades has snowed tons of ticker tape upon presidents, foreign dignitaries, and domestic heroes from Gen. Douglas MacArthur to astronauts will be using other bits of paper this time: Years ago the advance of technology phased out the venerable news and stock machines that used the paper ticker tape.

By contrast, Washington just showers its heroes with applause, and fans them with thousands of hand-waved flags.

For many tourists and Washingtonians it was not the first day they had seen the weaponry and service men and women that paraded before them. Beginning Thursday an awesome display of this sophisticated weaponry, much of it literally just back from the Gulf war, carpeted the grass Mall from the Washington Monument to the foot of Capitol Hill. Boys and girls of all ages, from preschool to retirement, swarmed into and over it.

More impressive even than the high-tech machines were the bright, articulate and friendly troops who with the patience of Job explained how the weapons work to tourists in lines that would not quit. People like Cpl. Chad Folden, of Lincoln, Neb., who helped a stream of excited little boys into his tan armored vehicles (``They seem to like it'' - a classic understatement). People like Staff Sgt. Miguel Lopez of Canovanas, Puerto Rico, who patiently explains the duties of the four-man crew of a 40-mile-an -hour tank to a ``dogface'' of three decades ago.

The swift collapse of Saddam Hussein's army led to the return of these men and their colleagues and weapons, their business of fighting completed.

But in the past few days in Washington developments on a number of domestic issues symbolize how much of America's domestic business is yet unfinished.

Use of alcohol by American teenagers is one such area. A federal government survey of a sample of American teenage students concluded from the results that an estimated 8 million drink weekly, that nearly 7 million can obtain alcohol without difficulty although they are too young to drink legally, and that two in every five drink to feel better. US Surgeon General Antonia Novello pronounced these results ``shocking.''

Health care is a second problem subject. This past week Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine and other top Senate Democrats unveiled the major reform proposal they have been laboring over for months. It would provide health insurance coverage to all Americans either through their employers or through a government health program that would replace Medicaid, which aids many of today's poor.

The education problems of America's children, especially in math, are a third newly spotlighted area in need of attention. A nationwide study of fourth, eighth, and 12th graders in 37 states found major deficiencies in their math knowledge particularly worrisome because the increasingly technical nature of tomorrow's jobs will require today's students to be better in math and the sciences, not worse.

Among other things, the study reported that in none of the 37 states was the average math score of eighth graders as high as it should have been.

Finally, the issues of America's troubled economy and high unemployment resurfaced in recent days. New Labor Department figures concluded that an additional 59,000 Americans found jobs during May than did the month before; by contrast, during both March and April the number of US jobs had declined.

Nevertheless, May's unemployment rate also increased, up three-tenths of a percent to 6.9 percent. Economists argued as to whether unemployment actually was higher, or whether the figures were just more accurate than during April. Senate majority leader Mitchell promptly said the figures mean the ``recession continues unabated.''

The situation actually is worse than figures show, he said, because nearly 6 million more people who want to work full-time can find only part-time employment.

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