Troops Find Gratitude, Entertainment at Indianapolis 500
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 27, 2006 About two dozen soldiers and Marines watched intently as Indy car pit crews changed tires and gassed up their cars during the fourth annual Checkers/Rally's Indy 500 Pit Stop Challenge here yesterday.
Soldiers and Marines participate in an Indy 500 tradition -- kissing the bricks -- though they added their own touch. At the bottom of a push up, they kissed the only remaining bricks from the original track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Photo by Samantha L. Quigley
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Before the competition began, the servicemembers were warmly welcomed as they walked to their seats on the track.
"Before the start of this, ... we walked the track to this area, and the people stood like a wave clapping for the troops as they walked over here to watch the competition," Keith Sirois, president and chief executive officer of Checkers Drive-In Restaurants, Inc., said. "I think what it gives them is that understanding that the people in this country really do support them and what they are doing."
It was all part of the annual "Carb Day" festivities at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Sirois' company is an "America Supports You" corporate team member and an "Operation Gratitude" corporate sponsor. America Supports You is a Defense Department program that highlights grassroots and corporate support of the nation's servicemembers. Indianapolis Motor Speedway joined the organization last year. Operation Gratitude is a California-based grassroots troop-support organization that has sent more than 125,000 packages since its creation in March 2003.
"(The Indianapolis 500) is really an icon of American culture," Carolyn Blashek, Operation Gratitude's founder, said. "To have Operation Gratitude be a part of it -- we are all about patriotism and love of country and serving those who serve our country -- it really is a great honor."
In addition to hosting the servicemembers, Checkers/Rally's used its track-based food stands to collect support messages on "Thanks to the Troops" post cards. The company expects at least 10,000 cards to be signed this weekend. They are part of Operation Gratitude's Patriotic Drive to collect personal, convenience and snack items, and personal notes for packages for troops serving overseas.
"People think it's really great that we're (collecting messages). They really appreciate the support, and they've been happy to join in," Shelley Kinser, a local models, said about her experience collecting messages for Checkers/Rally's.
"We actually have had some people that have said they just got back from Iraq that are sending messages over there saying, 'You'll be home safe too. I just got back,'" she added.
Sirois, a former sailor, said he appreciates opportunities like the Patriotic Drive and hosting the soldiers and Marines. "I understand the difference between the military then and the military now," he said, referencing his father's Navy career. "It's a very different military today, and these folks very much deserve everything we can give them."
In addition to collecting messages this weekend, the restaurant chain also is collecting items in 750 of its stores across the country.
The Patriotic Drive began May 8 and ends June 14. This will allow enough time for Operation Gratitude to pack and ship the 40,000-50,000 boxes the donations are expected to fill by July 4, Blashek said.
While models from local agencies were busy asking Checkers/Rally's customers to write messages to troops, the servicemembers in attendance got a visit from a top supermodel. Linda Evangelista took a break from the Pit Stop Challenge to pose for pictures with the troops.
"It keeps the morale high." Lance Cpl. Chris Offringa, of Company A, 1st Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, said of Evangelista's visit. "To have a supermodel (pose for pictures), I think for anybody is just fantastic."
The servicemembers later attended a concert by popular bands the B-52s and Third Eye Blind at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Allen Warden, of the Army's Armor Center, at Fort Knox, Ky., said the event was a great opportunity for the soldiers and Marines. "Look at these guys; every one of them has a smile on his face. (You) can't beat that," he said.