Dan Knott was just watching football in his hospital bed on a quiet Sunday afternoon. Then in walked Miss America, silver crown and all, to thank the 51-year-old Baltimore man for his long-ago Army service.
"Just want to let you know how much we appreciate you," said Katie Stam, the 22-year-old brown-haired, brown-eyed beauty queen, during a goodwill trip to the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in downtown Baltimore.
After posing with Knott for a Polaroid snapshot, Stam moved on to chat with other veterans receiving medical care on Ward 3-B. She made the visit in conjunction with the USO, a congressionally chartered nonprofit group that has been boosting soldier morale since 1941, most famously through visits from entertainer Bob Hope.
"Our veterans just want somebody to spend time with them and not have to talk medicine or test results," Stam said in the hallway. "They just want somebody to come and say hello and say thank you."
While people tend to focus on troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, "a lot of times people forget about our military families, our wounded soldiers and our veterans."
Knott, who left the Army in 1983 after stints in Germany, called her visit a "very pleasant" surprise. "At the time I got out of the service," he said, "nobody cared that you were in the service. So you didn't get thanks. Nowadays, it's great."
Stam spent two hours at the VA hospital, talking one-on-one with a couple dozen veterans on wards for acute care and surgery. Her unexpected appearance - hospital officials wanted it to be a surprise - put smiles on many faces. One veteran, 61-year-old Bentley Ertwine, playfully smoothed his hair with both hands before his snapshot with Stam.
Sometimes she introduced herself just as "Katie," as when she met George Chatmon, an 84-year-old World War II veteran. He thought the USO disbanded after the war and was pleased to hear it's still going.
"I'm flattered," Chatmon said of Stam's visit. He allowed that she was "very attractive" but didn't realize that she was Miss America. He thought she might have been wearing a "local crown."
Told otherwise, he said, "I'm extra-flattered."
Bill Harmon, who is 80 and served in the Army artillery during the Korean War, reacted skeptically when told whom he was about to meet. He was sure it was a joke.
"I am overwhelmed," he told Stam after being convinced she was the real deal.
"Well, you're very sweet," she said. "We wanted to stop by and just let you know we appreciate your service to our country."
A few patients recognized her, including 54-year-old Gary Allen, a Navy veteran from Baltimore. "I'm sorry, I watch TV," he quipped. "What can I say?" By the time she left his room, he was wiping sweat beads off his head.
"Beautiful woman," he explained. "I mean, come on."
Few patients were more enthusiastic about meeting Stam than Wayne Carlile, 62. The Army veteran from Baltimore asked her to add the name of his wife, Brenda, on the photo as she signed it. He explained that his wife rooted for Stam before she was crowned Miss America 2009 in January.
As she prepared to go, Stam thanked Carlile for letting her interrupt his afternoon.
"Boy, did you add something to it," he told her. His eyes grew wet. "Matter of fact, I'll never forget this the rest of my life."
"You are very sweet," Stam said. "Thank you for making me feel very special. You take care, OK? Be thinking about you often."
To a gale of laughter, he replied, "I'll be thinking a lot about you, for sure."