The heavy equipment started rumbling through the streets of Washington at 2 a.m. this morning. Moving through the dark of night, the armored trucks, tanks and fighter planes began taking up positions for a major military event little more than a stone's throw from the White House and Capitol Hill. Not exactly a city under siege, Washington will nevertheless be inundated with military equipment and soldiers come Saturday morning. That's when the nation's official Desert Storm homecoming celebration gets under way. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf himself will lead some 8,800 Desert Storm troops, including a contingent from the First U.S. Army in Fort Meade, down a 2.5-mile parade route beginning at 11:30 a.m. It promises to be the highlight of the day. Rolling along with the troops will be 130 pieces of military hardware from all the services, including the famed Patriot missile. "The Patriot may be the largest in size, but the largest by weight will be the M-1," says Maj. Donald M. Sensing, a Joint Task Force spokesman, as he proudly ticks off the various types of weaponry that can be seen: "M-1 tanks, M-2 infantry vehicles, Humvees, [high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles], Tomahawk cruise missiles, F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft. . . ." As the parade comes to an end, more than 80 aircraft from all four services and the Coast Guard will take part in a 15-minute flyover of the area. The rest of Washington's day of hoopla will include a picnic for the troops, a several-blocks-long stationary display of military equipment in the Mall, a star-studded USO show and the largest fireworks display Washington has reportedly ever seen. It's being billed as the National Victory Celebration, the country's official "thank you" to the troops, and indeed it's even got New York City concerned that it will outshine the Big Apple's own Operation Welcome Home, a ticker tape parade on Broadway set for Monday. Organizers of the Washington festivities are expecting between 600,000 and 800,000 spectators to flood the area around Constitution Avenue and the Mall between the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial. Among the spectators will be a number of Desert Storm soldiers who, while not officially marching in the parade, nevertheless will be in evidence to bask in the recognition, hover around the equipment displays and share their expertise with inquiring civilian visitors. The marching troops will represent every branch of the service, roughly in proportion to the numbers they sent to the Mideast, Sensing says. Since the Army outnumbered the other services in the desert, its 3,350 parade participants will no doubt seem to dominate. Locally, the First U.S. Army based at Fort Meade will be sending an Army band, a color guard and a formation of troops from the 79th and 97th Army Reserve commands. Soldiers from Maryland, Virginia and Delaware will be arriving on the base tonight and spending all day tomorrow "practicing," says Maj. Loren Porr, who is organizing the contingent. After all, they may know how to scramble in the desert, but "they've never marched in 12-by-12 formation before," he says, "and that takes training." As for winning the approval of the civilian spectators, it's a tossup whether the tanks or the troops will draw the most attention. While critics say it's a travesty to glorify war by parading military hardware down Constitution Avenue, at the seat of American democracy, organizers say poppycock. "It's not a glorification of war," says Sue Kennedy, a spokeswoman for Desert Storm Homecoming Foundation, which had raised $5.3 million by mid-week to support the daylong celebration. "It's thanking the troops and giving them a chance to parade in front of the commander-in-chief." President Bush will view the parade from a reviewing stand near the White House. The non-profit foundation comprises some 20 veterans organizations nationwide. Among them is the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), a group with mixed emotions about the overwhelming public support for participants in the gulf war, which lasted only 43 days. "Sure there are those [Vietnam veterans] who are angry," says Tom Worrell, assistant director of membership services for the VVA. "But there are others that wouldn't be anyplace else on Saturday the 8th. RF "Our guiding principle is never again will one generation of veter ans forget another," he adds. Those Vietnam vets who do attend Saturday will most likely gravitate to the Vietnam Memorial at the west end of the Mall, says Worrell. As unit after unit of parading Desert Storm troops pass the site, they will be ordered "eyes-left" and will salute their fellow veterans as they file past the imposing black marble monument. While the paraders and their families are treated to a privat picnic on the Ellipse in front of the White House, the public will be able to take in the huge display of military might on the Mall. The Desert Storm equipment that has been trickling into the Pentagon's parking lots from every corner of the U.S. for the past several days is expected to cover a display area on the Mall from 7th Street to 14th Street. Evening festivities get under way around the Washington Monument, where country singer Barbara Mandrell will headline a USO show that begins at 7 p.m. The evening concludes with a display of fireworks set off sequentially from sites at Union Station to the Potomac River and supposedly visible from any seat on the mall. The military equipment display will continue on the mall all day Sunday. For more information about the National Victory Celebration, call (800) 437-6791 or (202) 347-9155.