Troops in Iraq Thank Supporters in Arizona

By Capt. Brus E. Vidal, USAF
American Forces Press Service

BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 15, 2007 - Yesterday, through the magic of technology, more than 50 soldiers, airmen and civilians in Iraq were able to personally thank a group of citizens in Phoenix, Ariz., for supporting the troops and the families they leave behind.

Thanks to a little help from the Pentagon, a video hookup connected the deployed troops with the folks back home participating in the third Hearts to Heroes ride.

About 4,000 patriotic motorcycle riders and troop supporters, along with civic leaders from throughout Arizona, church members and volunteers with "Packages from Home" and "Operation Homefront" of Arizona came out to show their support. Some servicemembers from Arizona also received a special surprise during the live broadcast when event host, Barry Caraway, introduced their family members.

Carraway, owner of the Phoenix-based motorcycle enthusiast website, and David A. Whitten, chairman of the board and director of Marketing and Media Relations for Operation Homefront's Arizona Chapter, organized the first Hearts to Heroes ride in 2005 to show their support to troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, their families, as well as all veterans. The bikers rode for the troops again in 2006.

Prior to this year's ride, Packages from Home sent over 100 gift packages to the troops that were present at the event.

"I was blessed to join up with Packages from Home in November 2004 as their director of marketing and media relations," Whitten said. "When I came on board, they were shipping 30 care packages a month from the founder's garage.

"They are now shipping well over 3,000 packages a month from a donated 3,500 square-foot building they use as a processing center.

"It has been an honor to serve our military the past 26 months with Packages from Home, and now I am honored to be able to serve the families that are left behind by our deployed military from the state of Arizona and wounded warriors that return home to Arizona through the efforts of Operation Homefront of Arizona."

Both groups are members of the Defense Department's "America Supports You" program established in November 2004 to directly connect military members to the support of the America people and to offer a tool to the general public in their quest to find meaningful ways to support the military community

For this year's hearts to hero ride, Caraway and Whitten worked with the Multinational Force Iraq's U.S. National Outreach team to create a two-way, live, talkback with troops in Iraq led by Army Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, Multinational Force Iraq spokesman.

The event was broadcast live from the Armed Forces Network studio at the Combined Press Information Center in Baghdad on Fox News Channel's Fox and Friends morning show and on the Pentagon Channel. Dual 20-foot screen monitors, part of Christ Church of the Valley's audio-visual system, were used so the Arizonans could see Caldwell and the troops as they conversed with and answered questions from event host Caraway and audience members.

"Both Barry and I were wondering after last year's Hearts to Heroes event what we could do this year to make it bigger and better, and also make it reach out more to the community," Whitten said. "That's when we thought up the idea of taking our troop support event directly to the men and women serving this country proudly."

Whitten contacted his friend, Roxie Merritt, who works in the Pentagon as chief pf integrated internal communications for the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs.

"Roxie came to the grand opening of the Packages from Home processing center in November 2006. So when I pitched the idea of a live broadcast to Roxie, she loved it," Mr. Whitten said. "We are where we are here today at this live broadcast with the greatest group of Americans because of her."

Merritt said she was honored to be a part of this event. "Having just retired from the military, I know how important support from home is for the morale of the troops," she said.

"David Whitten and the wonderful people from Packages from Home are true patriots, volunteering their time and efforts to support our men and women in uniform," Merritt said. "We are very appreciative and grateful for their dedication. Plus, I have a lot of fun working with them."

Following the event, several troops expressed their appreciation for the show of support.

"This was an incredible event - absolutely awesome," Caldwell said. "Nothing means more to the troops than to know they have a supportive American public back home."

"The time and energy put in by that group of great Americans in Phoenix to make this event a reality and the monetary sacrifice they and so many others make to continue to mail hundreds and hundreds of care packages to our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, is truly amazing," the general said.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Lila D. Puentes, a paralegal serving with the Central Criminal Court in Iraq, echoed Caldwell's sentiments.

"It is always comforting for the men and women of the military to see that our efforts are supported, regardless of how the American people feel about the war in Iraq," said Puentes, who is from San Antonio, Texas. "I personally want to thank everyone who contributed to the "Hearts of Heroes" program. "Their efforts in giving us a "little piece of home" are greatly appreciated."

Others among this group of care package recipients at the event all hail from the Southwestern United Sates - including Arizona, California, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada and Texas.

"Receiving care packages while deployed is something very special to me - it means that someone back home is thinking about me and what I am doing, as well as what the rest of out servicemembers are doing, here in Iraq," said Army Spec. Jennifer E. Fulk.

"Events like this remind us how much people back home care and are willing to donate their time, money and energy into showing their patriotism," she said. "I am extremely proud to be a part of our Armed Forces and to be serving my country as a resident of Arizona."

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Antonio Infante, from Las Cruces, N.M., talked about what it means to have the support of the American public and how this event drove that point home for him.

"I can't express enough gratitude to Hearts to Heroes with words alone," said Infante, who serves as a paralegal with Task Force 134, Central Criminal Court of Iraq. "I'm very honored to be able to do what I do for my country.

"I'm even more honored to know that there are people who support those of us who are away from our homes," he said. "These packages mean more than you could ever know, especially knowing that these were gifts from the heart."

"It brings a tear to my eye every time I read a note or a letter from someone who is expressing their support," Infante said. "It makes me proud to be from the Southwest and an American.

Infante told the support groups: "Keep up the good work and keep bringing the smiles to the soldiers serving this great country."

(Capt. Brus E. Vidal is assigned to Multinational Force Iraq's U.S. National Outreach program.)

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