America Supports You: Summit Connects Grassroots Organizers
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 2, 2005 Representatives of grassroots organizations supporting troops and their families in partnership with the "America Supports You" program got hearty thanks and encouragement from defense leaders today during the first-ever America Supports You summit here at the Pentagon.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld shakes hands with Robbie Bergquist, 13, who is standing next to his sister Brittany, 15. Robbie and Brittany are the founders of Cell Phones For Soldiers, a program that helps deployed servicemembers call home. Rumsfeld thanked about 85 representatives of grass-roots groups for their efforts as part of the America Supports You Team during a summit at the Pentagon, Dec. 2. Photo by R.D. Ward
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the 85 attendees, who represent nearly half of the 175 nonprofit groups partnering with America Supports You, their efforts are making "an enormous difference" for military members.
Rumsfeld likened their initiatives - from sending care packages, to providing video links between troops and their families, to building houses for wounded troops - to pebbles dropped in a pond.
"Each thing people look at, whether it's a cookie or a card or a word of support, you think it's not that big a deal, but it is," he said. "The ripples go out." And with each gesture - each pebble dropped in the pond -t he ripples begin crisscrossing and reinforcing each other, the secretary said.
Rumsfeld singled out examples of the groups' activities. To Shauna Fleming, a California teenager who founded "A Million Thanks," a group that's sent 1.4 million thank-you notes to troops, Rumsfeld said, "You're a one-woman Army!" He praised John Gonsalves of "Homes for Our Troops," a group that builds specially adapted homes for returning disabled veterans, for accomplishing in days what months of bureaucratic red tape couldn't. The organization provided bathroom support bars at no cost to a wounded soldier.
The secretary also acknowledged Jay Edward and his wife Marian Chirichella of "Angels of Mercy," a group that visits wounded servicemembers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here weekly and offers gifts and other treats for the troops and their families.
"The folks who are serving out there are doing an absolutely superb job," Rumsfeld said of U.S. troops fighting the war on terror. "There is no question that they understand the importance of this struggle that they are in.
"It is truly historic what's taking place" in that struggle, the secretary said, noting that today's troops will some day look back on what they've accomplished and recognize the significance of their contributions.
"Each of you, just as the soldiers, sailors and airmen and Marines are part of that battle and struggle, each of you is participating as well," the secretary told the group. "You are a part of that history.
"I want you to know how much we appreciate each of you for what you are doing," Rumsfeld said.
"I hope you will continue to encourage your friends and neighbors and other organizations to tune in to Americasupportsyou.mil," he said, "and find out what you are doing and what other people are doing to help make us a better country and a better world and a safer world for the American people."
Army Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former commander of the 4th Infantry Division in Iraq, emphasized the importance of public support to the military.
"We do not have a morale problem in Iraq," Odierno said, calling the troops "extremely motivated" because they believe in the mission and their country.
In addition, he said, they recognize that "the American people have been wonderful" about showing their support for them. "Thank you for what you do for us every day," he told the group, whose members initiate much of that effort. "I salute you for your service and your support to your nation, and most importantly to me, to our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines ... who are performing around the world."
"They really do appreciate the tremendous support that you give them," Odierno said. "And it's important that they understand that they are getting that support."
Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, who came up with the America Supports You program concept and oversees its operations, called the groups' initiatives "so critical and so vital" to the military.
"And it's important for you to know that the folks here at the Department of Defense are very grateful to you for your energy and your efforts," she said.
Today's meeting was planned to help make sure DoD is doing everything possible "to help you help our military," she said. Participants in the summit welcomed the opportunity to meet and hear from defense leaders and meet with each other during break-out sessions during the day.
"It's a wonderful opportunity because it gives us the opportunity to network and connect with others who have a common goal," said Steve Chelette from "Troop Talk," a group that provides near-time communication for deployed troops and their friends and loved ones at home.
Darlene Harvey Harrigan of "Adopt a Soldier Ministries," called the meeting a great way for America Supports You members to exchange ideas and learn from each other. She also hoped to gain insights into how grassroots organizations can enhance their efforts to support the troops. "It's all about them," she said.
For Carolyn Blashek of "Operation Gratitude," which sends care packages to deployed troops, the session presented a unique opportunity for America Supports You members and defense officials to learn more from each other about their efforts for the troops. "This is great," agreed David Jester of "Give 2 the Troops," which responds to specific troop requests for items ranging from T-shirts to DVDs. "We're networking. We're learning from each other."
Just as importantly, he and other participants agreed, the session presented an opportunity for those supporting the troops to tap into each others' enthusiasm and dedication.
Christina Finn of Chicago's "Patriotic Pillow Project," which provides hand-stitched pillows to troops overseas, called the meeting a great chance to meet like-minded, positive, supportive individuals from across the country. "I learned so much being here this weekend and being able to brainstorm (with the other participants)," she said.
Today's session was the first Pentagon visit for most of the participants and the largest gathering of the community organizations since the launch of America Supports You last November.
DoD introduced the program to answer a question officials began hearing from deployed troops: "Do the American people still support us?" Barber reminded the group today.
"And when we heard that question, we were confused, because we saw all the wonderful things that were happening," from care packages being sent to yellow ribbons being affixed to cars and wrapped around trees, she said. "So we were concerned that you were doing wonderful things but our military members did not know."
In response, DoD created what Barber called a "connector campaign" that she said helps bring visibility to those efforts and provides a resource for Americans looking for ways to lend their support.
"We decided that the Department of Defense doesn't need to start a lot of new initiatives, because you were already doing it," she said. "We just had to figure out a way to know what was happening and then communicate that to our men and women in the military."
Since the America Supports You Launch, 175 grassroots organizations and 22 corporations have joined the program. In addition, "hundreds of thousands of Americans are coming to the America Supports You Web site to learn out about what you are doing and how they can help you," Barber told the group.
"You are the heart of the America Supports You campaign," she said.
The upcoming year will bring several new initiatives to broaden the program's reach, Barber said. Among them are a new youth strategy to promote efforts among America's young people, a new DoD-sponsored bulletin board to enable America Supports You partners to share information and ideas, and regional events being planned around the country.
"We have a big year planned and we are excited about it," Barber said. "And we just can't move fast enough."