America Supports You: NASCAR Stars Pay Tribute to Wounded Troops
By Steven Donald Smith
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sep. 8, 2005 With the late afternoon sun glistening off of polished car hoods and new prosthetic limbs, wounded troops recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here gathered to take a peek at a row of NASCAR racecars parked in front of the hospital's Mologne House hotel.
Army Sgt. Johnathan Holsey, left, and Army Spec. Jerrod Fields pose with the Army-sponsored NASCAR racecar at the Sept. 7 NASCAR tribute for patients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Photo by Steven Donald Smith
(Click photo for screen-resolution image)
The cars were lined up at Walter Reed on Sept. 7 as part of a daylong NASCAR tribute to American servicemembers, many who sacrificed body parts in service to their country. Several NASCAR drivers and executives were on hand to show just how much they appreciated this sacrifice.
"They defend everything we believe in. It's very important that the troops know that all Americans support them. And although their job may be difficult, they've got a lot of people behind them," driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. said.
Throughout the day, the drivers and executives visited wounded troops in the hospital wards and hosted a dinner and evening of entertainment for servicemembers and their families.
"We live in a great country, and one reason is because of the armed forces," driver Terry Labonte said. "It is nice for us to be able to come here and in a very small way say thank you."
Joe Nemechek, driver of the U.S. Army No. 01 car, echoed this sentiment. "All the men and women in uniform who serve this country give us our freedom, and we shouldn't take that freedom for granted," he said.
Army Staff Sgt. Justin Shellhammer, 26, who lost his left leg when he stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan on April 5 returned the appreciation. "It's awesome that the NASCAR guys have come out to support the men and women who got hurt. The support is important because it shows that what we're doing is not going unnoticed," he said.
Army Staff Sgt. Troy Barns said the NASCAR visit was a good way to lift the "spirits of the guys in the hospital."
The drivers attending the dinner, at the Karen Wagner Sports Center on the Walter Reed campus included Labonte, Justin Labonte, Earnhardt, Nemechek, Jamie McMurray, Travis Kvapil, Martin Truex Jr., Ashton Lewis Jr., Carl Edwards and Jon Wood.
NASCAR executives in attendance were Brian France, NASCAR chairman and chief executive officer; Mike Helton, NASCAR president; Bill France Jr., NASCAR vice chairman; and Jim Hunter, NASCAR's vice president of corporate communications.
Hunter served as the emcee for the evening's event and thanked Kim Labonte, wife of Terry, for introducing NASCAR to Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, and the "America Supports You" program.
America Supports You is a Defense Department program that highlights the various ways in which the American people are supporting the armed forces.
Army Maj. Gen. Kenneth L. Farmer, Walter Reed commander, welcomed everyone for coming and referred to the wounded troops as "great patriots, we call patients."
Following the dinner, which was provided by the Checkers restaurant chain, country music singer Aaron Tippin performed his hit song "You've Got to Stand for Something."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a special guest appearance and immediately recognized that the crowd was not gathered to see her. "You're here to see the wonderful drivers of NASCAR, and so am I," Rice said. "This is an opportunity that NACAR has given us to salute the men and women in uniform for the exceptional service they are giving to this country."
Rice then thanked the staff of Walter Reed by saying they were "the greatest pit crew in the world."
Many senators and representatives were also in attendance, including Arizona Sen. John Kyl and Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist.
Toward the end of the evening, the drivers took the stage for a question-and-answer session. The questions mainly consisted of racing inquiries, such as how many times during a race do the tires get changed (it depends on the distance of the race and track conditions), and tips on drafting techniques, to which Earnhardt quipped that he didn't know any drafting techniques, because "I'm always in front."
The evening came to a close with a three-song set by singer Lee Greenwood, who got the crowd on its feet with his famous patriotic tune, "God Bless the USA,"
"I think it's great they came out. It's great for them to stop by and show us some love. I appreciate it," Army Spc. Jerrod Fields said.
Tippin succinctly summed up what many of those paying tribute to the wounded troops that evening had already expressed. "No matter where I go, I am never more proud to be an American than when I'm here," he said.