Rally, and Relief Valve, in Vegas

Times Staff Writer

Phil Randazzo is a health and life insurance broker. He's never been in the military. But if your telephone call is put on hold, you'll hear patriotic music. And he decided a week ago to ask folks to come by his suburban office building for a rally to support U.S. military personnel in the Middle East.

He figured he'd at least attract the 20 co-workers in his office. "This wouldn't be a pro-war rally, but a pro-troops rally. We have 250,000 troops over there, and we need to start supporting these guys, no matter how you feel about the war itself."

Wednesday afternoon, Randazzo got his 20, plus more than 2,000 others, according to police estimates. He believes his and other such rallies around the country help offset the impact of much larger antiwar demonstrations.

"This tells me there's a huge, pent-up desire among people to show their support for our troops, and that they're upset with all the antiwar rallies," said Randazzo, 34. "There are a lot more people out there who want to show their support, but haven't known how to, or had the opportunity."

The rally was a large one by Las Vegas standards, where politicians and community leaders grumble about apathy. There's not even a commonly agreed upon civic gathering place in Las Vegas -- short of a library or the Thomas & Mack Center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, home of the Runnin' Rebels.

For his rally, Randazzo chose the parking area next to his building. Beginning at 5 p.m., it began to fill with people wearing red, white and blue, carrying flags and banners supporting the troops.

Pete Pinal held a poster with a photograph of his 20-year-old daughter, Eva, a Marine Corps radio operator in the war zone. "I want to let my daughter know we support her," he said.

Taking photographs of the rally was Sal Evangelista, whose son, a Marine trained as a sniper, is with troops moving toward Baghdad. "I want to send him these pictures to give him moral support. It's the best we can do for now."

Randazzo requested donations to help buy overseas telephone calling cards to be distributed among the troops. He donated $10,000 to jump-start the drive, and more money was collected Wednesday.

Randazzo, who describes himself as neither an organizer nor an activist but as a patriot, says he was inspired to stage the rally because of military connections in his office -- one employee's husband flies for the Air Force Thunderbirds, the spouse of another is based at nearby Nellis Air Force Base.

That was enough motive to launch the rally. Then word of mouth kicked in, and the rally gained momentum after being promoted on local radio shows.

"Then people started coming out of the woodwork," he said. "I received hundreds of e-mails, not just from around here but all around the country. They were heart-wrenching, from moms and dads of servicemen who were so thankful that something like this was being planned."

He said he tolerates those who oppose the war, but wonders "why nobody is protesting against Saddam. Where are all the protesters in this country when he gases his own people?"

Buoyed by the success of his rally, Randazzo, who moved here from Chicago 11 years ago, is now planning his next campaign: collecting lip balm for the troops.

"I want to collect 250,000 sticks," he said. "I don't know where I'll put them. I'll let the military figure it out. My wife thinks I'm nuts."

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