By Carmen L. Gleason
American Forces Press Service
July 3, 2007 – A group of servicemembers selected by Defense Department officials to share stories of their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan are leaving the three-month assignment as inspired and touched as they left their audiences. As part of the department's "Why We Serve" program, eight military members were chosen to travel to communities throughout the United States on a 90-day public outreach speaking tour on which they appeared before communities in 40 states during 277 events reaching more than 47,000 people.
"This whole program has been amazing," said Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Virginia Mayo. "It's not just because I get to tell my story; I'm a voice for the people still in Iraq and the people going back."
"I think it's important to let the American people really know what's going on over there," said Mayo, who attended more than 30 events during her tour over the past three months.
Mayo said one of her favorite groups was a Blue Star Mothers group from New Jersey. "I have never felt so loved. They were all hugging me and thanking me for what I've done," she said. "Those women were absolutely amazing!"
Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, started the Why We Serve program in fall 2006. Two members from each service, both enlisted and commissioned, conduct the program in quarterly segments. They talk to schools, veterans organizations and business groups, among others.
The program is important because it allows Americans to meet individual servicemembers who have been part of the war on terrorism, said Marine Maj. Chris Devine, the program's director.
"We don't care about politics; we just want to get the story of individual servicemembers out there," he said. "There is a huge credibility when young troops talk about their experiences."
Although only eight troops hit the road per quarter, they are representative of nearly 1 million active-duty troops throughout the military. Devine said participants range in ages from 17 to 45.
"They provide a true snapshot of what it means to be in the military today," he said.
"My story is my soldier's story," said Army Capt. Jessica Murphy. "And I tell my soldiers how much they are loved and respected by the people I've come in contact with during this program."
Murphy traveled to 12 states and spoke to more than 3,000 people during 25 separate events.
"There is an overwhelming support for troops out there," she said. "People would constantly come up to me and hug me. They are so grateful for what our military is doing for them."
Navy Lt. j.g. Katie Hagen called the experience phenomenal. "I was on a plane every other day; it was hectic. But the importance of what we were doing completely made up for that."
"Despite personal beliefs that the American public may have on the war, our troops are very well supported," she said. "It's essential that we get this message out to our troops."
The eight program participants are being replaced by a new batch who are just as excited and ready to take on the challenge. The newcomers spent last week at the Pentagon undergoing training consisting of public speaking classes, interview skills, speech preparation, and policy and ethics briefings. The first two servicemembers hit the road yesterday to begin their speaking tour.
"I can't wait to be the 'face of the Navy,'" said incoming speaker Petty Officer 1st Class Caleb Duke, who works on fast attack submarines. "The Navy will let you showcase your talents anywhere around the world. I can't wait to tell people about the 'silent service' of those on subs."
Duke recently returned from a deployment to Afghanistan, where he earned a Bronze Star medal for working with an Army civil affairs unit on emergency-response and rehabilitation programs in improve the quality of life for residents of the war-torn country.
"We are ambassadors for our individual service and the military," he said. "This is a great responsibility and honor. I look forward to getting the message out on what we do around the world every day."
Navy Lt. Judy Lemley volunteered to be a "sand sailor" for a six-month deployment to Afghanistan. While there, she helped develop and mentor the Afghan army in building, procuring and maintaining its radio systems.
"I love what I do," she said energetically. "I want the public to see our side of the story. My experience in Afghanistan will help other people grow."
Marine 1st Lt. David Bradt said he feels it is the servicemembers' responsibility to come back home and tell the story of what is going on in Iraq and Afghanistan. In March, he returned to Camp Pendleton, Calif., from a deployment to Habbaniyah, Iraq.
Unfortunately the American public never gets to hear the whole story, he said. "I thrive on this kind of thing," he said. "It's my turn to fight ... and to tell the story that needs to be told," he added.
The fourth group of "Why We Serve" speakers also includes:
-- Army Sgt. 1st Class Steven Adams;
-- Army Sgt. Daniel Alvarado;
-- Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Jeffrey Duncan;
-- Air Force Tech. Sgt. Howard Watkins; and
-- Marine Gunnery Sgt. Jeremy de Vries