America Supports You: Pocket Flags, Letters Encourage Troops Overseas
By Monique Reuben
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jun. 13, 2006 While military servicemembers await deployment, some will find inspiration in their mailbox, courtesy of "Project Prayer Flag," a grassroots group that sends servicemembers pocket flags and letters of prayer and encouragement.
4th Infantry Division soldiers near Bayji, Iraq, hold pocket flags they received inside "Project Prayer Flag" kits. Courtesy photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Project Prayer Flag is a member of the Defense Department's America Supports You program, which showcases Americans' efforts to support servicemembers and their families.
It's not important how Americans support the troops as long as they support them, said Shawn Black, the group's founder. The retired Army airborne veteran launched the group in 2002 with his wife, Angelica, a retired 26-year Marine Corps veteran.
"It's about caring and sharing the gifts that each of us has and giving to the troops," Black said. "As long as each American in their own way, whether it's through prayer, reflection or gifts, are able to support the troops that are over there -- not only in Afghanistan or Iraq, but in the Philippines, in Northern Africa, they're all over the world."
It all began when the couple sent a card and a small cloth flag to a friend in the Marines. They had no idea how such a small gesture would resonate with military members and Americans alike.
"He wrote back a few months later and said he appreciated the support and prayers and some of the people he was serving with would love the same support so could you send them some flags and some letters," Black explained.
Black and his wife began sending kits with pocket flags, bookmarks with one of five Bible verses and a letter or card from the public. Some volunteers began donating sunglasses and other useful gifts to include in the kits.
"We were prepared to say it was just a temporary project and to let it go," Black said. "It was never our intention to make it a long-term thing."
But the couple realized that troops rotate in and out of the deployed areas, so there was a constant need. Soon the organization spread by word of mouth. Commanders began requesting kits for their troops. For instance, Black said, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force recently requested 23,000 kits.
Since Project Prayer Flag began, the group has sent 144,000 kits to military members overseas and those facing deployment, surpassing their initial goal of 138,000.
As deployments continue, there is a need to keep troop morale levels high, Black said. "It's the greatest feeling in the world because it affects the troops and their morale when they know that they are receiving letters and care packages," he said.
Project Prayer Flag continues to garner support from communities, nonprofit groups, faith-based organizations and businesses.
Every few months, the organization sponsors a "Patriot Party" at a community center. Each all-day event draws about 200 volunteers, ranging from Boy Scouts and civic leaders to families and retired military veterans. "It doesn't matter what their affiliation is, they all come together with one purpose, and that is the troops," Black said.
Volunteers sit at tables and stuff various items inside the kits. After the items are packaged, Project Prayer Flag ships them to the troops.
Project Prayer Flag has also joined forces with country singer Neil Ford. Commanders have received DVD copies of Ford's music video "Don't Give Up On Me" inside Project Prayer Flag kits to show to their troops overseas.
The organization offers two outreach programs, "Operation Christmas Care" and "Adopt a Vet."
Operation Christmas Care affords individual families an opportunity to send holiday care packages directly to troops overseas. Adopt a Vet allows people to adopt individual servicemembers by sending care packages as well as offering spiritual and emotional support throughout a deployment.
Schools often participate in these outreach programs. Sarah Ternes, a junior-high teacher at Calvary School of Westminster, Calif., rallied behind the troops with her students at her side. The class adopted a Marine.
"One of the names had a Hispanic last name, so I chose him because I speak Spanish," Ternes said. "I included Christmas cards in English and one in Spanish."
Her class sent three packages during the Marine's deployment. "We were honored to be able to send letters to someone who was fighting for us on a daily basis," she said. "It has been a fun way for the class to become more aware of what is happening in other parts of the world, too."
The Marine corresponded with the class twice before he returned home in May. "He even put together a DVD message that I was able to show the students," Ternes said. "They were thrilled."