Fifth-Grader Gets Spotlight at Pentagon Town Hall
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 12, 2004 Eleven-year-old Ashley Pearson had no idea how much excitement she'd stirred up when she sent a letter to President Bush earlier this year asking what she could do to help save the county and telling the troops that she believes in them.
Marine Maj. Jonathan Gackle thanks 11-year-old Ashley Pearson from Lincoln, R.I., for her support for the troops during a Pentagon town hall meeting March 12. Ashley wrote President Bush a letter earlier this year asking what she could do to help save the county and telling the troops that she believes in them. Photo by Staff Sgt. Jerry Morrison, USAF
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
First came the president's reference to Ashley's letter during his Jan. 20 State of the Union address. Then came a flurry of media interviews.
Today the spotlight was again on the fifth-grader from Lincoln, R.I., who with her family earned front-row seats on stage at a Pentagon town hall meeting today.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told assembled service members and DoD civilians that Ashley embodies the character and courage of the American spirit qualities he said have led America's fight for freedom over tyranny for more than 200 years.
"Ashley understands the importance of freedom, appreciates the strength of men and women who guard and protect us every day, and recognizes the responsibilities of citizenship," Rumsfeld said.
In her letter to Bush, Ashley wrote, "If there's anything you know I, Ashley Pearson, age 10, can do to help anyone, please send me a letter and tell me what I can do to save our country." Her letter included a postscript: "If you can send a letter to the troops, please put, 'Ashley Pearson believes in you.'"
The president read Ashley's letter during his State of the Union address and responded with this advice: "Study hard in school, listen to your mom or dad, help someone in need, and when you and your friends see a man or woman in uniform, say 'thank you.'"
Today Rumsfeld gave Ashley his personal thanks "for recognizing the superb service of the wonderful men and women in uniform." She received a standing ovation from the Pentagon audience.
During the question-and-answer session of the town hall meeting, Marine Maj. Jonathan Gackle offered more thanks on behalf of himself and many other men and women in uniform. "Ashley, we want to thank you for what you have done and what you have said in that letter to the president," he said. "And we believe in you, and we love you for being out there."
The town hall meeting topped off an event-filled four-day visit to Washington for Ashley, her parents and her 9-year-old brother, Mark. On March 11, Ashley and her family received a personal guided tour of the Pentagon by Rumsfeld, and were scheduled to visit the White House and meet the president later today.
"It feels really neat," said Ashley of her visit.
She said she watches television news almost every night, sandwiched between softball practice, karate sessions and homework assignments. She said she wrote to Bush to express her thanks after U.S. forces captured former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
"I'm glad that the soldiers caught Saddam Hussein," she said. "I feel a lot safer because he's been caught."
Ashley's mother, Natalie, said she had not realized how concerned her daughter had been when Saddam was still at large.
Ashley said she's particularly appreciative of what the U.S. military is doing to counter the terrorist threat. "They're trying to save our country and risking their lives just for us," she said.
The girl said she also recognizes that, even with Saddam Hussein in custody, the war on terror goes on, and that she and her generation may some day have to step up to the plate to resume the fight against global terror.
Ashley said she's considering joining the military when she grows up, "just to be there to help."
In the meantime, she and her classmates at Saylesville Elementary School are doing what they can to support the troops. They sent letters to a soldier deployed to Baghdad and visited a local Veterans Affairs hospital to deliver Valentine's Day cards to the patients.
And now Ashley has her own personal calling card: pencils imprinted with the words, "Ashley Pearson Believes in You." She handed out the pencils during her Pentagon visit and said she intended to give one to President Bush.
As for her letter-writing career, Ashley said she's already written a second letter to Bush this one she intended to deliver personally today. "I want to thank him for everything," she said.