By Carmen L. Gleason
American Forces Press Service
April 24, 2007 – Decked out in their new military-issue combat boots and with bags packed in preparation for a trip to 90-degree climates, 45 civic and business leaders converged on the nation's capital April 22 to take part in the oldest public affairs program sponsored by the Defense Department. Pentagon officials invited leaders from across the nation to participate in the 73rd Joint Civilian Orientation Conference, a weeklong journey covering 18,000 miles to introduce civilians to members of the armed forces who carry out military operations in Southwest Asia and the Horn of Africa.
Defense Secretary James Forrestal initiated the program in 1948 in an effort to introduce influential community members to the scope and breadth of the armed forces. Initially, participants only visited U.S. military installations; however, the program has spread to include overseas areas pertinent to today's military operations.
Before boarding an Air Force C-17 Globemaster III transport jet to fly nearly 8,000 miles for their stop in Djibouti, participants visited the Pentagon, where they had breakfast with top leaders from each branch of service. They also received briefings by military officials in preparation for their trip to the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility.
"We appreciate your curiosity to learn about the men and women who defend your freedom," said Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of defense for internal communication and public liaison. "We know that you are very busy people, and it honors us that you're giving up a week of your time for us."
A range of leaders from chief executive officers of energy corporations and professional sports franchises came together with entertainment industry executives and political leaders to see first-hand what each branch of service does to protect the freedom of the United States in addition to helping fledgling nations learn to do the same for themselves.
"I'm hoping to learn more about the world through the eyes of the military," said Gary Cohen, superintendent of the Port Angeles School District, in Port Angeles, Wash.
He said he plans to use his experiences during the trip to teach his students about world geography. By playing "Where in the World is Dr. Cohen?" he wants to challenge the third graders in his school district to learn more about Southwest Asia.
"This trip is not about politics. It's about your defense and what the men and women in uniform are doing every day," Barber told participants. "I encourage you to have robust, interactive conversations with our troops during this trip."
Maine State Sen. Lisa Marrache said she plans to use her experiences during the trip to communicate with her constituents and do a better job in her position as the state's veterans affairs chairman.
As the daughter of a career soldier, Marrache said, she understands this war isn't like Vietnam, but something completely different. She said she plans to have outreach events upon her return to share her experiences.
"This trip will help me be better informed to dispel myths while providing more dimension to the nation's participation in the war," she said. "Nobody is against supporting our troops, but I'm hoping to get some unbiased answers over the course of the trip."
For military supporters like Chris Kanazawa, president and chief executive officer of Parker Ranch, Inc., in Kamuela, Hawaii, the trip will provide a better sense about what troops are doing to support the global war on terror.
Kanazawa, whose father served in World War II, was draft-eligible during the Vietnam War. He said he wants to make sure that troops feel supported back home.
"All I learn about the military is from what I read in newspapers," said. "This war is very different from ones in the past. This trip will help me better understand and spread the word about how dedicated, focused and well-trained our troops are."
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