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America Supports You: Baseball's Nationals Honor Armed Forces

By Petty Officer 3rd Class John R. Guardiano, USN
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 3, 2006 – Major League Baseball's Washington Nationals honored members of the U.S. armed forces yesterday during pre-game festivities that highlighted the organization's annual military appreciation day.

Eighteen new military recruits took the oath of enlistment; five veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Hurricane Katrina were honored; and fans were asked to show their support by sending a text message of support to the troops through the Defense Department's "America Supports You" program.

"Baseball has a long history with the American military, dating back to World War II," said Josh Golden, the Nationals' manager for entertainment. In fact, more than 500 major league baseball players, including 35 hall of famers, served in the military during World War II.

The Nationals, Golden added, have embraced the U.S. military ever since the franchise - formerly the Montreal Expos - moved to the nation's capital last year. "We had the military here on hand for the opening day ceremonies; we had the National Guard carry out the giant (American) flag; and we intend to continue that strong relationship," he said.

The Nationals gave every fan a small American flag as they entered the stadium, and the flags were on display throughout the game. Twenty-five military children spanned the outfield to hold giant service emblems for the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard, as the Air Force's Singing Sergeants sang "The Star Spangled Banner." A moment of silent prayer was observed for fallen U.S. troops; and five recent military veterans were joined by Medal of Honor recipient and Medal of Honor Foundation board member Brian Thacker to throw the ceremonial first pitches.

Army Brig. Gen. Arthur M. Bartell, vice director of operational plans and joint force development for the Joint Staff, administered the oath of enlistment to the new recruits. Fans stood and cheered these latest additions to the military family, as the stadium rocked to the tune of Tina Turner's classic Simply the Best."

"This is just a great event," Bartell said. "It shows the support of the American people. The men and women who are serving out there all know this, and they appreciate it. Events like this make morale go up. It's just tremendous."

The honored veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan and Hurricane Katrina agreed. "It's important because it boosts the morale of the troops (on the front lines)," said Marine Corps 1st Sgt. Bobby Barnett, who served in Fallujah, Iraq, in the summer of 2004. He also is an 18-year Marine veteran of the first Gulf War.

"Sometimes," Barnett explained, "when you have long days out on the battlefield, especially when it's hot, you know, and some things may not be going the way that you would like them to -- well, then you see the support that you get from the home front, and so that keeps your morale up. And morale is the main thing when it comes to mission accomplishment. That's what helps you to push forward."

Barnett said public support for the troops grows more important the longer a conflict lasts. "As you can see in the polls," he noted, "the longer that things go on, there may not be as much support for the war itself." That's why it's important for "servicemembers to see that they have all this support behind them, from everybody that lives here in the country."

"I think it's very important," said Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Paul Gibb. "What people need to understand is that we give our lives not for a purpose, but for a principle, and that principle is freedom for all. ... I've been blessed by (my military service)."

In addition to Barnett, recently deployed veterans from the other four military services also were honored:

Army Staff Sgt. Jody Belzer served with the 21st Military Police Company (Airborne) in Baghdad and Fallujah from January to December 2004. He earned the Army Commendation Medal for valor when he and his squad defeated enemy ambushes on two consecutive nights in Fallujah. A Bronze Star for service, Belzer said, was awarded to him for a wide array of efforts, including convoy security operations, nighttime patrols, and finding roadside bombs.

Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Robert Medrano, a hospital corpsman, provided medical assistance to troops in the Middle East while supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Air Force Senior Airman Joseph G. Buzanowski, a public affairs specialist, deployed in 2004 to the Combined Air Operations Center in Southwest Asia to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan; he will deploy to Afghanistan in September.

Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Seth Cockram served on an 87-foot patrol boat off the coast of Gulfport, Miss., in support of relief operations after Hurricane Katrina.

Barnett expressed optimism about the prospects for success in Iraq. "Actually, everything is winnable over there," Barnett said. "There is a huge amount of success, and that's what a lot of people don't see. ... In leaps and bounds, we're having success over there, but the things that hit the news are the bad news stories, not the good news stories."

Belzer agreed. "I think it's getting better and better every day," he said. "When we first got over there in '04, we weren't sure. ... But more often than not, what you don't see is that you drive around and not a lot goes on as far as violence and stuff like that. You see a lot of school kids and people running around enjoying their freedom. They're showing improvements every day."

As the veterans left the stadium, several fans stopped to thank them for their service. Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, many of these fans had familial ties to the U.S. military.

"We're very proud to be Americans," said Tony Caruso from Annapolis, Md. Caruso was at the game with his two daughters, 5 and 7 years old, and uncle, Wade W. Ridgely. Ridgely is originally from Annapolis, but is now a Navy civilian employee at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Virginia.

"We can't do enough to appreciate what our military does for us," he said. "We have a great country, and these men and women are on our front, and they're protecting us every day. And we need to appreciate our freedom -- and we do."

"They're protecting our rights and our liberties," said Allen Oaks from Chicago. He said he and his girlfriend, Tara, were at the game because they're baseball fans; they didn't realize it was military appreciation day. However, Oaks noted, "I have uncles that served in Iwo Jima and Vietnam, and an uncle that served in Desert Storm. Another uncle works for the Department of Homeland Security."

Washington resident Evey Pinkham's father is a retired Air Force master sergeant who fought in World War II and Korea. The retired veteran served more than 40 years and lives now in a soldiers' home. Though she and her family also didn't realize it was military appreciation day, they were glad to be in attendance at yesterday's event. "We love baseball, but this just makes it more worthwhile," she said.

"I think whatever we can do (to support the troops) is great; and the more we can do the better," said Washington resident Abe Frank. "This is just a very small thing to do for what they're doing overseas; and something should be done on a regular basis."

Especially at a time of war, "it's important to remember, whatever your politics, to support the troops," said the Nationals' Golden, "because they're really brave men and women and they're doing something that is important and necessary and selfless. And I think it's an important message to send across the country: that they're really heroes."

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Brig. Gen. Arthur M. Bartell, USA

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