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America Supports You: Summit Participants Motivated to Thank Troops

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 13, 2006 – Clutching a camo-clad teddy bear named “Hero” that she received from a soldier in Iraq, fifth-grader Bailey Reese stood out among the troop-support organization leaders who gathered at the Pentagon today for the second annual America Supports You Community Group Summit.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld enjoys a smile with Niceville, Fla., fifth-grader Bailey Reese, founder of “Hero Hugs,” at the second annual America Supports You Community Group Summit at the Pentagon, Dec. 13. Representatives of more than 80 troop-support organizations participated. Photo by Robert Ward

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

America Supports You is a Defense Department program that spotlights and facilitates support for the nation’s servicemembers and their families by the American public and the corporate sector.

Representatives from more than 80 of the program’s 234 nonprofit grassroots organizations met with DoD officials, coordinated their troop-support functions and shared their stories.

After a hurricane hit her hometown of Niceville, Fla., 10-year old Bailey started “Hero Hugs,” an organization that sends care packages to troops.

“We were without power, so we went to one of the checkpoints and (Bailey) saw people snapping at the soldiers and complaining about the lines being too long,” said Bailey’s mom, Diana Calvert-Reese. “Nobody was telling them ‘thank you.’ She was really bothered by that, so she made it her mission to see that soldiers were thanked.”

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who later was presented with an America Supports You poster signed by each of the participating partners, addressed the group.

“We know what you’re doing for folks in uniform and their families,” he said. “They appreciate it, and we appreciate you doing it.”

And though America Supports You is a Pentagon program, the secretary said, he knows where its strength lies. “We know very well that the strength of this effort doesn’t start here at the Pentagon,” Rumsfeld said. “It comes from each of you -- your initiative, creativity, compassion and concern.”

The secretary praised the groups’ work on the annual Freedom Walks held in tribute to those killed in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and to honor the nation's past and present warriors. The event first took place in Washington in 2005 with more than 10,000 participants. With the help of ASY members throughout the country, Freedom Walks were held in more than 130 cities in 2006 with tens of thousands of participants.

“You are true patriots demonstrating support of troops and their families. That is an amazing thing,” Rumsfeld said. “These initiatives come from you folks. They say something about the spirit and compassion of our country.”

Rumsfeld also spoke about his last trip to visit deployed troops, from which he returned Dec. 10. He said he wanted to see the troops one last time, to look them in the eye and personally thank them.

“I leave the Pentagon knowing that our military strength is not in weapons, airplanes or ships, but in individuals,” he said. “It’s in the hearts of those in uniform, in their patriotism, their truly impressive professionalism and in their determination to accomplish their mission.” “I hope that you’ll keep doing what you’re doing,” Rumsfeld said. “I think this effort is very important.”

Rumsfeld’s comments were followed by feedback sessions which gave the troop-support organization leaders the chance to discuss what they enjoy about the program and what could make it even better next year.

Strengthening the community of support for the nation’s men and women in uniform is next year’s goal, said Calvin K. Coolidge of Freedom Alliance, a nonprofit organization that provides scholarships and grants to children whose parents have been killed or permanently disabled in combat.

Other ideas mentioned in feedback sessions included reducing shipping costs on items sent to troops abroad, and harnessing new media – such as blogging, virtual forums and chat rooms -- to keep America Supports You partners and their donors connected, said Allison Barber, assistant secretary of defense for internal communications and community outreach. Barber conceived of the America Supports You program, which was launched in November 2004. Meeting with congressional representatives to explain their programs on Capitol Hill would also be helpful, several participants said.

“We welcome the scrutiny and the honesty and your critique, because it will make a stronger organization,” Barber said to the auditorium of America Supports You partners. “We want to know what’s on your mind, and we will help facilitate that. … It’s a great use of our time.”

Discussion turned to the annual Freedom Walk, an America Supports You initiative designed to remember the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States and to honor the nation’s veterans, past and present. Freedom Walks took place in all 50 states this year in addition to the national event held in the nation’s capital.

“The Freedom Walk is a nice opportunity for people to get together and show our consolidated support for the military,” said Linda Davidson, director of OMK, a McLean, Va., nonprofit organization that provides grants for extracurricular activities to children of deployed soldiers. Next year’s Freedom Walk will be a good way to show support for military families too, Davidson said.

The annual summit underscores the participants’ desire to honor and respect America’s servicemembers, Coolidge said.

“Our troops need to know that they are supported by the American people; the America Supports You program helps them get that message, wherever they are,” he said.

(Carmen Burgess contributed to this report.)

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America Supports You

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