America Supports You: California Teen Still Thanking U.S. Forces
By Terri Lukach
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May. 19, 2005 A California teenager this week reached her goal of collecting 1.4 million thank you letters for America's armed forces -- and is still finding new ways to convey America's thanks to the military for their service.
Actor Gary Sinise shows off his "America Supports You" dog tags while meeting with fellow military supporter Shauna Fleming, who has collected 1.4 million thank you letters for members of the U.S. armed forces. Courtesy photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
A high school community-service project and a challenge from her father led 16-year-old Shauna Fleming to start her quest.
Shauna's father, Mike Fleming, had urged her to use her high school project to "do something special for the troops." Two years earlier, the teen's dad had started an annual campaign to send valentines to U.S. forces serving in the global war on terror. Shauna decided to send thank you letters - a million of them.
In May 2004, Shauna launched a campaign called "A Million Thanks" to collect and distribute the letters. By October, less than seven months after she began, Shauna received her millionth letter -- a handmade card from a high school student in St. Charles, Mo. On Nov. 17, Shauna presented a card to President Bush in the Oval Office.
During her trip to Washington, Shauna and her family met with defense officials at the Pentagon and helped launch the department's "America Supports You" program, which showcases efforts like Shauna's. She also shared thank you letters with wounded veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here.
Reaching her million-letter goal was not the end of Shauna's project, but rather was just the beginning. Having collected a million, she changed her goal to 1.4 million thank you letters -- one for every member of the U.S. military, Shauna said.
"At first, I had no actual number in mind," Shauna said. "I just knew the campaign would keep going. Then I thought it would be really cool to get 1.4 million letters -- one for every member of the active duty military."
Fleming said she plans to frame and send the 1.4 millionth letter to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers.
Throughout 2005, Shauna's tour across the country has continued. She has met with military members and their families, promoted her project in media interviews, worked with celebrities, participated in local and national events, and reached out to Americans via her Web-based radio talk show program, "A Million Thanks," on wsRadio.com.
She also wrote a book with the same name that includes photos of her travels and some of the letters she has received from servicemembers serving overseas, and has had offers to turn her story into a television movie.
"So much has happened," Mike Fleming says of the time that has passed since Shauna came to Washington in November 2004. "The e-mails and cell calls from soldiers and their families have been awesome."
In March 2005, Shauna was selected to be the 2005 spokeswoman for National Military Appreciation Month by Alice Wax, founder of the annual commemoration.
"Shauna has done amazing work this past year in collecting and distributing over 1.2 million thank you messages to our troops," Wax said at the time. "She epitomizes what NMAM is all about."
In April, actor Gary Sinise, another strong supporter of the military, surprised Shauna Fleming by granting her wish to meet him. After contacting her father, Sinise arranged for Shauna to visit the set of his television series, "CSI: NY." Shauna thought she was going to New York for a television interview.
As she arrived on the sound stage, Sinise walked up to her and said, "Hi, Shauna."
"I thought I was going to fall over," Shauna said. Fleming said she had wanted to meet Sinise since early last year when he offered to help deliver her letters through his organization, "Operation Iraqi Children." The program, which he founded with author Laura Hillenbrand, enables Americans to send school supplies to children in Iraq. Sinise and his "Lt. Dan Band" also regularly perform for military members at bases around the world.
Shauna gave Sinise a pair of the America Supports You program's signature "dog tags."
Earlier this month, Shauna participated in NASCAR's opening ceremonies at the Talladega Super Speedway in Talladega, Ala. Her father described the event:
After a two-and-a-half-minute video, which began with President Bush's remarks to Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif., the video went on to describe Shauna's campaign and her meeting with the president, he said.
"Then it cut to Shauna, and she told the people about National Military Appreciation Month and the things they could do to support the troops. At the end, the crowd of more than 200,000 went nuts," he said. "She was brought on stage by Maj. Gen. Mark Bowen of the Alabama National Guard. The two of them introduced Purple Heart recipients who had received some of Shauna's letters."
On May 19, Shauna will visit Camp Pendleton to hand-deliver thank you letters to Marines and display her campaign's 1.4 millionth letter. As part of Armed Forces Day and National Military Appreciation Month, Shauna and 40 of her fellow high school students also will adopt a Marine unit. Shauna's school, Lutheran High School in Orange, Calif., is home base of the A Million Thanks campaign.
A Million Thanks is there for military families as well. "We lost a soldier that Shauna had been talking to via e-mail from Iraq," Mike Fleming said. "He was killed in a suicide bombing at a mess hall in December. ... His name was David Rube.
"David would have turned 21 two weeks ago. At 6:30 p.m. (on his birthday), his actual birth time, we launched a red balloon in his honor as his mother had asked all his friends to do. Quite emotional," he said. Shauna and the family still keep in touch with David's mother, Mike Fleming said.
What's next for Shauna Fleming and A Million Thanks? "I'm working on starting chapters of A Million Thanks in other high schools so that other schools, students and organizations can do what my high school did and have an A Million Thanks organization of their own," Shauna said.
"I'll keep doing interviews to promote my book, to get the word out and to tell the story, and we still need letters," she said. "As long as the troops are over there, there is a need for mail. And I'm going to keep sending it."
Shauna said she continues to receive at least two e-mails a week from service personnel, especially those deployed in Iraq. "It's wonderful to see the effect and how much it means to them. And it's important to let them know how much we appreciate and support all they are doing," she said.
Shauna's father agreed. "This entire campaign has been a blessing for many, including us," he said. "Shauna traveled to Fort Hood, Texas, to welcome back soldiers who wrote to her and even went to Los Angeles airport (May 14) to take a soldier to lunch who was stopping over on a charter flight home. "She has also had some letters and e-mails from soldiers that make you cry," Mike said.
One wrote that he picked up her book in a morale, welfare and recreation tent in Iraq. "Being away from home is hard. Real hard," the soldier wrote. "And your book reminded me of what I'm doing over here.
"I don't get very much mail -- nobody really does," the soldier went on, "but it was nice to read some feedback from people, even if it wasn't directed solely to me. So to you I say a million thanks for bringing my morale up. I never knew that someone had found a cure for 'homesickness' until today. ... Thank you for thanking me."
Another e-mail contained this message: "Let me just start with a BIG THANK YOU!"
That soldier also described coming across Shauna's book in an MWR library tent on a deployment. "Something inside me said that I needed to at least look (the book) over! So I took it back to my room and I couldn't put it down!" the soldier wrote. "Sometimes when I was reading it I had to set it down and take a breath so I wouldn't shed a tear. (Didn't help!!) But when I was done I was very touched!!!!!!!"
Mike Fleming said the e-mails and calls from soldiers and their families are something he will never forget. "This (A Million Thanks) has forever changed Shauna and our entire family," he said.