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Outreach Program Puts Human Face on Military Service

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 4, 2007 – Sharing military experiences with the American public injects a human element into events often conveyed through the cold glare of television’s nightly news, a group of well-spoken servicemembers said here Oct. 2.

“The numbers that you hear on TV of soldiers dying, the numbers that you hear that we’re going to bring 30,000 (troops) home, … I just put a face to those numbers, and we all do,” Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Jeffery Duncan told American Forces Press Service.

Duncan, a 40-year-old senior aircraft maintenance supervisor with 21 years of service, completed a five-month deployment to the Middle East in May. He’s one of a group of eight military members who’ve completed a week-long nationwide speaking tour featuring 20-30 engagements as part of the Defense Department’s “Why We Serve” public-outreach program.

Audiences at his speaking engagements love the military, Duncan observed, noting he told listeners how much he enjoys the camaraderie inherent across the armed forces. “We are one team, and that’s what we do,” Duncan emphasized, adding that his speaking tour was an awesome experience.

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Peter Pace started the Why We Serve program in the fall of 2006. Duncan’s group constituted the fourth iteration of the program, which is conducted in quarterly segments. Why We Serve duty tours are about 90 days. Participants are selected by their individual services and talk to schools, veterans organizations and business groups.

Why We Serve program director Marine Maj. Chris Devine praised Duncan and his fellow speakers in the fourth group for their professionalism and energy.

“They have the high bar for others to knock off,” Devine said. “I think they’ve done extremely well, not only in their venues, but representing their services, as well.”

The previous eight-member groups were comprised of two selectees from each military service, Devine noted. However, the next, fifth group will feature 10 speakers, he said.

The Why We Serve program has matured, and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Dorrance Smith has decided to “take it to the next level,” Devine explained.

“What this program is doing is helping us win the ‘war on narratives,’ especially in the mainstream media,” Devine noted. The program, he added, offers a different perspective about the war on terrorism, from the viewpoints of military members who’ve served in Afghanistan, Iraq or the Horn of Africa.

Another Why We Serve member in Duncan’s group, Marine 1st Lt. David Bradt, served two tours in Iraq. The 26-year-old combat engineer said he enjoyed telling people about his Iraq experiences.

Bradt noted his experiences in Iraq were varied, from “full-scale infantry missions to cache sweeps to more of a support role.”

The Marine said he was emotionally moved when people thanked him for his military service during his speaking tour. “Almost at every single venue a number of people would come up and thank you,” Bradt recalled. “We don’t need gifts; we don’t need medals. Just come up and say, ‘Thank you.’”

Bradt said he is impressed with the Why We Serve program. “They should fund as many of these (speaking tours) as they can possibly afford,” he urged.

Meeting one-on-one with the American public helps to combat misperceptions about the U.S. effort in Iraq, he said. “It’s a new fight. It’s a very, very powerful information war,” Bradt explained.

Another Why We Serve speaker, Air Force Master Sgt. Howard Watkins, accompanied supply convoys from Kuwait into Iraq during his overseas tour of duty from March to December 2006.

Many people he met during his speaking tour stops weren’t aware of the fact that that the Air Force is doing convoys for the Army and has been for the last three or four years, Watkins observed.

He called the Why We Serve program a worthy endeavor . “The best thing that I have gotten from the program was seeing that there are still people out there that have the same ideals and beliefs that I have,” Watkins said. “There’s so much negative media.”

Navy Lt. Judith Lemley served a seven-month tour in Afghanistan before she embarked on her speaking tour. Lemley said she relished urging veterans groups members to keep supporting servicemembers. “It’s so much easier for us to focus on our jobs knowing that so many of these people back home” are working to take care of the nation’s military veterans, she said.

Lemley said she also told audiences that the military is truly an equal-opportunity employer. “I’ve never been held back because I’m a female,” she said. “I’ve been given the same opportunities as everyone else.”

Lemley, who traveled across Afghanistan to train the country’s soldiers, described the often dangerous, gritty conditions she’d experienced to her audiences.

Despite the arduous conditions in Afghanistan, Lemley told her speaking-tour audiences that she didn’t complain. “Because I do what I love,” she said.

Army Sgt. Daniel Alvarado recalled telling audiences about his wartime experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. “I could tell I was having an impact on them,” Alvarado, a combat engineer, observed.

Asked if he’d volunteer for another hitch in the Why We Serve program, Alvarado replied: “I’d do it in a heart beat.”

Other members of the fourth group of Why We Serve speaking-tour participants are: Marine Gunnery Sgt. Jeremy de Vries, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Caleb Duke, and; Army Sgt. 1st Class Steven Adams, who had to leave the program due to a family issue.

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