By Donna Miles
WASHINGTON, Aug. 16, 2006 – Momentum continues to build as 48 U.S. cities -- a number that continues to grow -- prepare to sponsor America Supports You Freedom Walks to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The first Freedom Walk, inaugurated Sept. 11, 2005, in Washington, D.C., attracted more than 15,000 participants, including family members who lost loved ones in the attacks.
The walk proved to be so meaningful to those involved that Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, hopes to make it a nationwide observance. "We knew that it would be a powerful moment when civilians from all walks of life and family members who lost loved ones and (Department of Defense) employees who lost coworkers came together and simply said, 'We won't forget,'" Barber said.
But the synergy that occurred when 15,000 people who began the walk at the Pentagon crash site met up with family members of the victims just leaving a private ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery took even Barber by surprise. "They integrated into this walk, and together they said, 'We will not forget,'" she said. "It was life-changing."
The response to that first Freedom Walk proved to be so strong, particularly among families who called it a healing experience, that Barber recognized the importance of extending its reach. "We knew that we had to share the Freedom Walk with more than Washington, D.C.," Barber said. "And that is why this year, on the fifth anniversary (of the attacks), that the Department of Defense has just thrown open the invitation to fellow Americans" so they can participate, too.
They're responding around the country, with cities, schools, churches, civic organizations, neighborhoods, even individual families in 26 states choosing to conduct their own Freedom Walks. Barber said she expects more events to be announced after schools go back into session and activity picks up within civic groups. "I think we are really starting a new national tradition," she said.
No two Freedom Walks are expected to look the same, Barber said. In Sebring, Ohio, 9-year-old Colton Lockner is organizing a Freedom Walk for the town's nearly 5,000 residents. In Killeen, Texas, the Killeen Independent School District is hosting a Freedom Walk on every one of its 50 campuses, including elementary, middle and high schools, and the local military base, Fort Hood, is sponsoring its own Freedom Walk at a local high school stadium.
Large-scale Freedom Walks are planned in Oklahoma City, Chicago and Washington, D.C., and dozens of other U.S. cities are planning their own Freedom Walks. Regardless of their size -- a small family or a whole city -- or how simple or elaborate they might be, all Freedom Walks will offer a common, unifying activity that brings participants together to reflect and renew their commitment to freedom, Barber said.
The Freedom Walk has no agenda, she emphasized. It's about coming together as a nation to remember those lost during Sept. 11th and to pay respect to veterans past and present who defend the freedoms that fell under attack that day, she said.
"It's that combination of saying 'We won't forget,' and also that we will honor those who have, throughout the history of our country, chosen to defend the freedoms we hold so dear," she said. "The country needs a unifying activity and an opportunity to come together, and that's what the Freedom Walk is." More information about the Freedom Walk is posted on DoD's America Supports You Web site. Barber encourages groups planning Freedom Walks to write to the Web site to share information about their events.