By Donna Miles and Jim Garamone
WASHINGTON, Sept. 10, 2006 – A sea of walkers in white shirts proudly proclaiming their participation in the America Supports You Freedom Walk walked from Washington to the Pentagon to remember those murdered on Sept. 11, 2001. Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke as the crowd gathered near the Washington Monument here today.
"You and some 130-plus other gatherings like this across all 50 states today are telling our fellow Americans and the world that we do stand together, and we do stand for freedom and we will walk for freedom and we will fight for freedom," the chairman said.
The walkers, including many family members of those lost in the Sept. 11 attacks, also participated to remember America's veterans past and present.
Pace said Americans must recommit themselves to freedom. As chairman, Pace represents 2.4 million American servicemembers of all components. Those men and women "are here 2.4 million strong to tell those terrorists, 'Not on our watch,'" he said.
Pace said a letter he received from a young man asking how he could serve reminded him of the importance of Americans volunteering to help their fellow citizens. "The fact of the matter is that Americans can serve this nation in so many ways," he said. "(They can serve) in gatherings like this, in our police forces, in our fire departments, volunteering to read to the elderly, volunteering to take care of the sick and the lame. There are so many ways that Americans can volunteer their time to ensure this country produces the types of citizens that we're all proud of and that produces the type of lives that we all aspire to.
"There are so many ways to serve this country," he continued. "I hope that young man does decide to serve in the armed forces." He asked Americans everywhere to think about what they can do for America and to "reach deep inside" to find ways to serve.
Pace told the participants it is a great pleasure for him to walk with them to the Pentagon. "This will be a walk from here to a certain point on the map," he said. "But it will also be a walk from here into the future. I am optimistic; I am excited about the future of our country, and I look forward to taking these steps with you together."
Two of the walkers joined after seeing the stage from the Washington Monument. Von and Alane Kelley are taking part in a cross-country bike ride. The couple, from Oklahoma City, understand firsthand what it's like to experience terrorism at home. Von was in seventh grade when the Murrah Federal Office Building there was bombed. He said he remembers volunteering to help with his parents and that he believes it's important to unite in remembering Sept. 11 and in honoring the troops. "For me, this is about symbolism -- unity and support for our troops," he said.
Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, said the Freedom Walk is "an opportunity for people to come together and say we won't forget."
Barber noted the significance of the event that brings together not just the thousands of participants in the Washington Freedom Walk, but also the "hundreds of thousands of people across America saying, 'We won't forget.'"
"What you see here is pride," said Marine Sgt. Joshua Tretter, a Pentagon tour guide who is assisting in the Freedom Walk effort. "And the more people we have here to show that, the better."
The event drew scores of volunteers who pitched in to make it a success. Retired Navy Cmdr. Chuck Young drove here from Newport News, Va., to remember friends lost on Sept. 11, 17 former classmates from his Bronx high school who died at the World Trade Center and two former comrades at the Pentagon. As he worked yesterday, handing out credentials at a local mall and today helping set up on the National Mall, Young said he was also honoring those serving in the military, including two sons and a son-in-law. One son, Army Spc. Jared Young, is at Camp Taji, Iraq with the 1st Special Troops Battalion, 4th Infantry Division. "I'm supporting them by being here," he said.
Air Force 1st Lt. Aletha Holland, from the 69th Aerial Port Squadron at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., called volunteering at the Freedom Walk a way to give back for all she has. "I think we take freedom and the freedoms we have for granted," she said. "This Freedom Walk is an expression. It shows that we are united as a people.
"We may experience tragedy, but it doesn't keep us down. A champion gets back up, and that's what we are."