Danielle Stetz was a patriot long before it became trendy to wave the American flag and pin up yellow ribbons.

As a young girl, she was moved by the stories of combat veterans. So when the sophomore at Glen Burnie High School sat down to write a speech about democracy, she remembered a childhood experience that taught her the meaning of the word.

Her poignant script of a dialogue between a child and a disabled veteran won Stetz the opportunity to represent Maryland this week in the national "Voice of Democracy" contest. Although she lost in the final round, Stetz is enjoying being feted with the other contestants in Washington.

"Everything is so exciting," the 16-year-old said in a telephone interview from her hotel room in Crystal City. "I've learned a lot about how everything's run here in D.C. I think I reallylearned to appreciate things more."

The 54 contestants representing the states, D.C., the Pacific and Panama were flown to Washington last Friday. They've toured the historic sites, visited the Smithsonian, heard a speech by Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefsof Staff, and attended a congressional banquet. Stetz, who is sharing a room with the contestant from Korea, said she most enjoyed meeting congressional leaders and talking to the veterans.

"When you getaround the VFWs, there's just this kind of at

mosphere that makeseverything exciting," she said. "They have so much enthusiasm."

Nearly 3,000 veterans, most from World War II, were in Washington thisweek for their annual midwinter conference, which ended yesterday. Sporting blue blazers, caps, sashes and pins, they sat in the lobby ofthe Sheraton Washington hotel and talked about the gulf war.

Theyinvited the "Voice of Democracy" contestants to hear Powell's address on Monday. His rousing speech, reminding the veterans that "our young volunteers in the Persian Gulf were just like you were -- patriotic, caring, wanting to do the very best job possible -- was a high point for Stetz.

"It was really intense hearing him after seeing him on TV every night," she said.

Stetz, who is returning from the whirl of festivities today, won the local, regional and then state contest with her five-minute script of the dialogue between a child and a veteran handing out poppies in a store. She recorded the moving speech by drawing on a conversation she had as a little girl with a disabled veteran, who told her the significance of "buddy" poppies and explained why he fought for democracy.

One of the youngest contestantsto win the state title, Stetz is the second "Voice of Democracy" champion in her family. Her 18-year-old sister, Tanya, won the high school contest, but did not make it to the state and national level.

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