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America Supports You: Airlines Honored for Troop Support

By Paul X. Rutz
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 22, 2006 – In a setting featuring fine food, formal military uniforms and a giant ice sculpture of a soldier's boot, America's air carriers were honored here yesterday for their role supporting wounded troops and their families.

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Fisher House's James Weiskopf, vice president for communications, speaks with Col. Tom Rotondi, commander of Pershing's Own, part of the U.S. Army Band, on Fort Myer, Va., June 21. They gathered with troop supporters to honor the nation's airlines for their work with Hero Miles, which offers free airline tickets for wounded troops and their families. Photo by Paul X. Rutz

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

The evening's events began with the twilight tattoo ceremony, an hourlong sunset military pageant at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. Afterward, members of the Army's Old Guard and the Army Band joined troop supporters at the Officers' Club here as David Coker, president of the nonprofit Fisher House, thanked its backers before turning the podium over to James Weiskopf.

"It's my privilege to assist Dave Coker this evening as we recognize nine major airlines whose partnership with Fisher House foundation has saved servicemembers and their families more than $7 million in just two and a half years," said Weiskopf, the foundation's vice president for communications.

Weiskopf said Operation Hero Miles, which Fisher House operates with the Defense Department's help, permits airline passengers to donate unused frequent flier miles into accounts that the group then uses to provide free tickets to two categories of recipients: Patients at military and Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals use the tickets to visit their families and then return to the hospital for more care. Families and close friends of those injured troops also use the tickets to be by their bedsides and aid their recovery.

So far the program, begun in November 2003, has provided 5,800 airline tickets from over 275 million miles donated, he said. The most typical donors are retired couples who give a few thousand miles at a time. "When enough people donate small amounts, it becomes a large amount," he said.

As Weiskopf called representatives from the airlines forward, Coker handed trophies to them and posed for pictures with two Fisher House trustees: Pride Winkenwerder, wife of Dr. William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, and Mary Jo Myers, wife of former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff retired Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers. The Defense Department's director of community relations and public liaison, Dallas Lawrence, handed each representative a certificate of appreciation from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Representatives from the following airlines accepted the awards: Northwest, which was the first airline to join the program; Delta; Midwest; Continental; and US Airways, of which America West Airlines is now a part.

Airlines that have participated in the program but did not send representatives include Independence, which is now out of business; Alaska Air; American; AirTran; Southwest, who participated during most of 2004 but did not renew its membership; and United, the program's newest partner. United is the only carrier that flies nonstop from Dulles, Va., to Frankfurt, Germany, "a routing unfortunately that we use far too often to bring families to a loved one who is at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center," Weiskopf said.

Fisher House is named for its founders, philanthropists Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher, who began the foundation in 1990. In May 2006, the 35th Fisher House opened, near Fort Campbell, Ky., Coker told the crowd, and more are soon to come. Fisher Houses give the families of hospitalized servicemembers a place to stay while visiting their loved ones in military and VA hospitals.

"We're in a period of expansion, not only in the services we provide, but this year we're going to finish five houses," he said. "That is as impressive an expansion as we've ever had. And it's even more remarkable, as I look at it, because the houses we're building today are three times the size of the original house."

Each new house covers nearly 17,000 square feet, has suites for 21 families, and every room is handicapped accessible, he said.

Coker said Fisher House's close work with the airlines is vital to their ability to help the troops, and the group appreciates working with America Supports You, a Defense Department program highlighting grassroots and corporate support for the nation's troops and their families.

An additional award went to representatives from WMAL radio of Washington, D.C. In two years of campaigning, the talk radio station has raised close to $3 million to support Fisher House. "We're especially indebted to WMAL radio listeners who have responded so generously," said Chris Berry, the station's president and general manager.

The campaign ramps up each fall, leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas. In 2004, its first year, the program raised $2.3 million. "That exceeded our wildest imagination," Berry said.

Plans for this year's drive are well under way, he said, and serving those who serve the nation is a great honor. "Troops who have sacrificed the way these guys have sacrificed shouldn't have to worry about things like where they're going to stay," he said.

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