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America Supports You: First Responders Operate for Troops

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 14, 2005 – Peggy Baker of Midland, Va., said her son opened her eyes to the big picture of what the military does for Americans.

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Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Cook displays Operation First Response backpack he received as a patient at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington as OFR's Peggy Baker looks on. Before he was wounded in Iraq, Cook was an OFR point of contact at a combat support hospital in Iraq. He was with the Wisconsin Army National Guards Company B, 118th Medical Battalion. Courtesy photo

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"I was one of those people who walked around and had no idea," she said. "I had no military in my family."

Then Sept. 11, 2001, happened where she said her son was "just a few buildings" over from the Pentagon. From that experience, she said, "he just came home and joined the Army."

"He opened my eyes to, 'Oh my gosh, you're right, look what's being done for us (by the military)."

So Baker too joined an effort to support the troops. Originally, she started with a group that mainly focused on deployed servicemembers. And she was also involved in working with returning, injured servicemembers. But she didn't feel she could be involved with both endeavors and do either of them justice.

So in August 2004, she formed Operation First Response. The group, with about 10 significantly involved members across the country, works to do just what Baker calls her responsibility: assist wounded servicemembers as they return to the states and transition back into civilian life.

"I think that it's our responsibility (to support the troops)," she said. "Freedom is not free."

To date, Operation First Response has provided more than 1,000 backpacks to wounded servicemembers through points of contact at 11 combat support hospitals in Iraq and Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. They come filled with personal hygiene products as well as season-appropriate clothing and a phone card. Baker always makes sure there's a greeting card from well-wishers across the country included too. She ensures the backpacks are always black so that servicemembers returning to active duty can still use them.

Baker said that on occasion the group has received a bulk donation of items such as hand-held games, cards, journals and even compact discs of songs that express support for the troops. Those are included when they're available.

"Actually, our goal is to get CD players," Baker said. But right now, she noted, the money's needed for other support items.

The group has one other major goal: helping families get to their injured servicemember. The military will cover travel expenses for two family members to meet their loved one at a hospital, but Baker said that with extended family and divorced people frequently there are more than two people who like to be with the servicemember.

One way OFR helps accommodate those extra family members is using donated frequent flyer miles - something the group can't get enough of.

"We are in such need for the frequent flyer miles," Baker said. "The frequent flyer miles are such a blessing because we have been able to get ...I many ... family members to the sides of these soldiers that they ordinarily couldn't afford to go.

"Those are such a blessing and we are begging for them right now," She emphasized.

She said the airlines typically charge $50-$85 to transfer the miles, but OFR covers the charge.

For those family members traveling into the Washington metropolitan area to reconnect with an injured servicemember, OFR also covers the cost of a car service. The family members are picked up at luggage claim and driven to Walter Reed Army Medical Center or National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda to eliminate one worry from their list.

Baker said she also visits Walter Reed twice a week. One is to meet with a group of wives and mothers. For these family members, she offers a source of resources available to them and their injured loved one. If need be, she even helps them fill out necessary forms.

She said she has made lifelong friends through her endeavors. "My Christmas list is really growing," Baker said. "You become so involved with them and you love them (like) your own family."

But she said that none of the Walter Reed trips would be possible with out her husband, Steve, who drives her to the hospital twice a week, about 100 miles roundtrip.

"He is wonderful with the soldiers," Baker said. "When I watch him with them, I realize how good it is for them to have a man to talk to."

She also gives Liz Fuentes great credit. Baker said Fuentes books the flights, manages the Web site and basically acts as her "right hand."

Currently the group awaits final approval of its nonprofit organization status application. Thus far, donations through Paypal, the online payment system, and private donations have supplemented the funds given from their biggest contributors, the VFW and the American Legion and other big military-affiliated organizations.

As for her son's take on all of this: Spc. Joshua Nickel, 27, is probably embarrassed "to death.", his mom said.

"But I think he's very proud," Baker said. "He called me the other day and he said ... 'Mom, I saw you in an article."

The article was in a VFW magazine.

Nickel is currently a Bradley fighting vehicle gunner stationed at Camp Casey, South Korea.

Baker said that what she does is small. But, she said, when America sends its military to protect its citizens, troops deserve to know that America supports them.

"We send our military to protect us, they don't make a lot of money. There's no other reason other than that these are a breed all of their own, and if not for them we would be living like the other countries do," she said. "I think it's the least we can do is to take care of our wounded when they send them home to us.

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Related Sites:
Operation First Response
America Supports You

Click photo for screen-resolution imageMarine Sgt. Oscar Canon, center, stands with H.C. "Barney" Barnum, Jr., deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for reserve affairs, and Peggy Baker of Operation First Response. OFR works to support wounded servicemembers with backpacks of essentials and by helping cover the cost for family members get to their loved one should they be critically injured. Courtesy photo  
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