Honoring a band of brothers -- and sisters

Times Staff Writer

It only seemed as long as the Korean conflict. And never mind that laughs for comedian Norm Crosby's jokes -- "I know a lot of guys who like to date homeless women. You can drop them off anywhere!" -- were missing in action. The U.S. Vets Gala was a star-spangled extravaganza that heightened guests' awareness of one of the country's most disturbing problems -- homeless veterans.

A benefit raising more than $300,000 for the United States Veterans Initiative Inc., which provides transitional housing and job training to vets across the country, the Feb. 21 event began with a silent auction and ended with a performance by the Fifth Dimension. What came in between should keep guests humming patriotic tunes for months.

Nancy Conrad, widow of former astronaut Pete Conrad, led a tribute to the victims of the recent Columbia space shuttle disaster. "Space is a very dangerous place -- the astronauts all knew they might not come back," she told more than 900 guests gathered in a ballroom at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. "The threads they have woven are part of the tapestry of man's insatiable desire in his quest for knowledge and advancement."

Also on the red-white-and-blue agenda were tributes to servicemen from Easy Company -- Jim Alley, Buck Compton, Don Malarkey and Richard Winters -- the subject of HBO's "Band of Brothers," and retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Peter J. Gravett. Others recognized for service to their country were Anthony Principi, secretary of Veterans Affairs; veterans Juan Alvarado and Jerry Ford; George Vinson, director of the Office of Homeland Security for Gov. Gray Davis; and actress Connie Stevens.

During the cocktail reception, Gravett -- whose jacket was a rainbow of colorful medals, known in military slang as a "vegetable patch," he said -- called the veterans' initiative a "fantastic charity.... We need to make more people aware of the vets who live on the streets and raise more funds to help them get their lives back on track."

Stevens downplayed her Celebrity Leadership Award, saying, "I don't do things for awards. What I really like to do is bring attention to our veterans and support them. Once you have servicemen deployed in the world, you must support them.

"I've been on the hospital ships and on the battlefields, and once you've done that, you come back a different human being."

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