Secretary Recognizes 'America Supports You' Team Members
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
LOS ANGELES, Aug. 5, 2005 Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld expressed personal words of appreciation to local grassroots supporters of U.S. servicemembers and the Defense Department's "America Supports You" program here Aug. 4.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (center) thanks team members of the America Support You program. Joining him (from left) are Pete Maddox, Kristen Maddox, Shauna Fleming, Evelyn Polizzi, Joseph Spooner, Tom Anton, Linda Patterson, Gail Chavez and Lester Surgener. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald, USAF
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Here to address the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, the secretary met briefly with the America Supports You team members to thank them for their tireless dedication in supporting troops and their families. "It's a great group," Rumsfeld said as he posed for photos with the volunteers.
Their efforts run the gamut, from 21-year-old Kristen Maddox's "Helping Our Troops" program that delivers specially requested items ranging from favorite snacks to hygiene items and shirts to deployed troops, to 11th-grader Shauna Fleming's "A Million Thanks" campaign that has sent 1.6 million letters of appreciation to troops to help boost morale.
Linda Patterson and Joseph Spooner represented the 37-year-old "America Supporting Americans" program Patterson founded two weeks before her brother was killed in Vietnam, which has since grown to include more than 100 U.S. cities adopting deployed units. Evelyn Polizzi and Gail Chavez came as founders of the Torrence, Calif., chapter of Blue Star Mothers of America, a support group for families whose loved ones are serving or have served in the military. Tom Anton and Lester Surgener came representing "Cooks from the Valley," a group that has purchased and prepared more than 40,000 12-ounce New York strip steaks for deployed or soon-to-deploy sailors, Marines and soldiers.
In his speech to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, Rumsfeld recognized the group and encouraged members to visit the America Supports You Web site, at www.americasupportsyou.mil, to learn about the vast array of activities families, schools, clubs, corporations and organizations are undertaking under the America Supports You program.
It's "a compilation of all the things that we know of that are being done across our country to support the troops and to support their families," he said. "And you will be impressed and amazed at the creativity and the generosity and the energy that is being put into this important activity."
The effort "says a great deal about the hearts of the American people," the secretary said.
"We are, as a country, ... greatly in the debt of those who raise their hands and say, 'Send me,'" Rumsfeld said. "Day in and day out across this globe, American men and women in uniform -- soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines -- are on the front line, fighting in this global war on terror. They're doing noble work. They are proud of what they are doing. And ... our country is deeply in their debt."
Supporters of the program told the American Forces Press Service they feel a personal bond with the troops and want to do whatever they can to remind them that the American people are behind them.
Maddox, from Santa Ana, Calif., said she started the "Helping Our Troops" program when a friend, Marine Corps Lance Cpl. John Richardson, deployed overseas for the third time, on her 21st birthday.
"All the people over there are my age. It's my generation over there," she said. "And since I can't be with them, I'm doing what I can, providing some of the things they want or need."
Maddox prides herself on offering personalized service, allowing troops to make special requests, buying those items and sending them directly to the requester. With $5,000 of her own money, private and corporate donations, and operational costs covered by her father, Pete Maddox's, company, Commerce Technologies, she has sent more than 500 packages to deployed troops and hopes to ship off another 300 soon.
Fleming started "A Million Thanks" after her father, Mike Fleming, urged her to channel a high school project into doing something special for the troops. Two years earlier, her dad had started an annual campaign to send valentines to U.S. forces serving in the global war on terror. Shauna decided to follow his example and send "thank you" letters to the troops.
With support from her entire Orange Lutheran High School and other local California schools, the project grew by leaps and bounds. Letters poured in, "from a 2-year-old scribbling on paper to messages from World War II veterans," she said. In November, Shauna presented the program's millionth letter to President Bush during a ceremony at the White House, and now she hopes to start new chapters throughout the country to broaden the effort.
Patterson has watched "America Supporting Americans" blossom since 1968, when San Mateo, Calif., became the first city to "adopt" a military unit, the 101st Airborne Division. At the time, Patterson's brother, Sgt. Joe Artavia, was deployed to Vietnam with the unit, but he was killed two weeks after the program began. Now, with more than 100 cities in 22 states participating, Patterson is keeping her brother's memory alive and hoping for even more growth for the program.
Much has changed in the United States since the program's beginnings, and Patterson said she's happy to see the American people rallying behind the men and women in the armed forces. "To see the country come together is extremely rewarding and beneficial to our troops," she said.
Polizzi and Chavez started Chapter 5 of Blue Star Mothers of America to help military families during their loved ones' deployments. "It's a stressful time for families," said Polizzi, whose son, Marine Lance Cpl. Ryan Polizzi, is about to deploy with his Marine Corps Reserve unit. Chavez' son, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Daniel Stephenson, already has served two deployments, so she understands the comfort a support network provides for the families awaiting their safe return.
"The idea is to give you a sense of community, that you're all in this together," said Polizzi. "It keeps your minds on the positive things."
Anton and Surgener began their "Cooks from the Valley" effort preparing gourmet steaks for sailors aboard aircraft carriers. They expanded the operation to feed a Marine battle group just before its members left for Iraq, and traveled to Fort Lewis, Wash., to grill up steaks for a Stryker battalion. Now they have their hearts set on traveling to Iraq to treat deployed troops there to juicy American steaks.
"It's a piece of home that we're able to bring these men and women," Anton said. "It's a way of showing that absolute strangers care about absolute strangers."
Part of the motivation for their effort is ensuring that today's military members never experience the lack of support Vietnam veterans like Surgener's father faced. "Each community and each person has something they can do for the military," Anton said. "Regardless of our political views, we all have an obligation to support our troops."
While their efforts vary tremendously, all participants in the America Supports You program said they're consistently driven to do more and give more because of the letters, e-mails and calls of thanks they get from the troops they're helping support.
"They're just so thankful," Maddox said. "I've never met people with more honor and integrity than those who serve in the military."