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Combat Veterans Connect With America Through ‘Why We Serve’ Program

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 21, 2007 – Wrapping up three months of speaking engagements around the country, recently returned combat veterans said Americans long to hear firsthand accounts about duty on the front lines without media filters.

“They were so hungry to hear our personal stories,” said Marine 1st Lt. Tabitha White, after sharing experiences about her eight-month deployment to Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, with schoolchildren, employers and civic groups through the “Why We Serve” program.

“The only information they had about what’s going on came from the news,” White said. “They said they never get a chance to hear personal stories.”

The Defense Department established the Why We Serve program in July 2006 to give returning veterans the opportunity to fill that void.

The brainchild of retired Marine Gen. Peter Pace, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the program sends servicemembers just back from Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa into the community. They crisscross the country sharing their firsthand experiences with community organizations, business associations, academic institutions, veterans groups and other non-profit or non-partisan organizations.

Today, the latest group, made up of three Marines, two soldiers, two sailors and two airmen, wrapped up the fifth three-month iteration since the program’s start.

Air Force Maj. Marcia Potter, who visited 12 states describing her work as a nurse practitioner at Balad Air Base, Iraq, said the program helps balance information the public receives about the combat theater from other sources.

Program participants share straightforward details about what they did, what was happening around them, and how it felt to be part of it.

“The Pentagon doesn’t tell me what to say,” Potter said. “I simply talk about my own experience.”

Wherever the participants took their stories, audiences responded. “I heard over and over again how people now have a better idea about the military and what it’s doing,” Potter said.

Army Maj. Cedric Burden, who spoke at 30 events through the program, said the groups he talked with couldn’t get enough. Many people came to the speaking events with written questions, some with three parts. At one event, the emcee had to cut off the questioning when it stretched well beyond the allotted two-hour time block.

Potter said the program gave people with little or no previous exposure to the military a chance to see that it’s made up of people not all that different from themselves. “It helped show people that in the military, we have relatable people -- people like them, but who have dedicated themselves to serving their country,” Potter said.

For Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Sivenson Guerrier, a highlight of the program was speaking at Navy veterans’ functions to explain the broad missions today’s sailors are conducting in the war on terror.

“There’s a new generation of sailors on the ground, not on ships,” said Guerrier, who returned from Afghanistan, where he served as a maintenance officer for the provincial reconstruction team in Asadabad. “When they heard about that, they were really surprised and so proud of the tradition that they had carried.”

Schoolchildren, many who thought only soldiers were fighting the war, were equally surprised, Guerrier said. “It felt really good to tell them that, no, the Navy is there, too,” he said.

Guerrier said he got a kick out of some of the “crazy questions” children would ask him. “They’re honest and don’t sugarcoat any questions,” he said. “They were just eager to learn.”

White said she was amazed at the level of support she felt everywhere she traveled. “Most of the public are so supportive of us as military members,” she said. “They may not agree with some of the policies and politics, but they are so supportive of us.”

Participating in the program, particularly fresh off a deployment, proved to be a benefit to the speakers, too. Burden said it helped give him closure after his yearlong deployment as an infantry company commander with 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, in Hawijah and Rashad, Iraq.

It also helped him deal with the 10 soldiers he lost. By meeting their families, visiting some of their graves and officiating at the dedication of a post office in one’s honor during his Why We Serve assignment, Burden said, he was able to pay tribute to his troops.

“It was therapy for me,” agreed White, who entered the program just a month after returning in August from her deployment to Iraq with Marine Tactical Air Command Squadron 2. “Before that, I had had no time to fully process everything I’d gone through. This helped me come to terms with my experience and what I personally got out of it.”

White said she takes pride in her service and the contribution she made as an airspace cell coordinator. “I was doing my job, protecting my country, protecting my family and protecting the community,” she said.

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