By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 7, 2008 - Some came to the National America Supports You Freedom Walk today to help heal scars left when the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attack on the Pentagon ripped a loved one from their life. Some came to remember coworkers with whom they had served, whose days were cut short when American Airlines Flight 77 smashed into the building. Many who hadn't experienced a personal loss said they walked to honor those who did, and to show support for troops who continue to defend the freedoms attacked that day.
Nearly 10,000 people came together this morning to kick off the seventh anniversary of the 9-11 terror attacks today during the Freedom Walk. The walk, in its fourth year, is one of 330 Freedom Walks being held this week in all 50 states and 12 foreign countries.
In the nation's capital, walkers assembled this morning at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery, enjoying a picture-perfect morning reminiscent of the one shattered seven years ago during terror attacks at the Pentagon, New York's World Trade Center and in Shanksville, Pa.
Bagpipers and drummers from New York, Philadelphia and Northern Virginia led the sea of walkers in white "Freedom Walk" T-shirts along the mile-long course from the Women in military Service for America Memorial to the Pentagon.
"Every person here wearing a white T-shirt communicates to the families that we haven't forgot those killed on 9/11," said Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, who established the annual Freedom Walk tradition. "But the Freedom Walk is also a time to recognize that what the terrorists attacked on Sept. 11 was our freedom, and to show our gratitude to the men and women in uniform who continue to defend those freedoms."
Stephanie Desimone, whose husband, Navy Cmdr. Patrick Dunn, was killed in the Pentagon attack, said seeing such a visible outpouring of support brings strength to families who lost love ones.
"That support is so important to the families," she said.
As she prepared to begin her second Freedom Walk, Desimone paused to consider what the walk means to her personally. "I'm walking here today for my husband and our family, and what we have come through and how we have healed," she said.
Family members, recognizable by the red bracelets around their wrists, followed the bagpipers along the route as they paid tribute to their lost love ones.
Heidi Zetscher returned this year for her fourth Freedom Walk to honor her uncle, James T. Lynch, a Navy employee killed in the attack. Marcella Potter and her sister, Amanda Golinski, walked to remember their father, retired Army Col. Ronald Golinski, who had returned to the Pentagon as a civilian employee.
Lynch and Golinski were two of just five of the 184 killed during the Pentagon attack whose remains were never identified.
Veronica and Sylvia Carver, who lost their sister Sharon Carver in the Pentagon attack, said the Freedom Walk helps ensure the memory of those killed during 9-11 lives on. "I've been doing this walk every year and I've watched it grow and grow and grow. That's really wonderful," said Veronica.
"The Freedom Walk is a way to recognize the people who died, but ever since we went to war, we realize that it's not just about 9-11," she said. "It's also about the soldiers, and all that they are doing."
For retired Army Maj. David King, who was working in the Pentagon on 9-11, taking part in his third Freedom Walk was a way to honor two of his office members killed, Army Staff Sgt. Maudlyn A. White and Lt. Col. Jerry Dickerson.
"It's important to remember those who died that day and to remind us why we are fighting this war," King said. "I've come to honor those who lost, and those who continue to sacrifice."
Many of the walkers have experienced those sacrifices firsthand. Among them was Army Staff Sgt. Chad Atkinson, who stood out from the crowd as he walked in his Army advanced combat uniform with his wife Sylvia and three children, the youngest just 16 days old.
"This is the first time I've been able to take part in the Freedom Walk because I was home and not deployed," said Atkinson, a 14-year soldier assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency. "Being a military family, we wanted to be here and support this effort. It's really nice to see all this.
"From being deployed, I know how much American Supports You has done, and this walk is an example of that," he said.
Army Master Sgt. Steve Magnin also chose to wear his uniform as he walked alongside his wife, Brenda, with both expressing amazement at the size of today's turnout.
"I was just shocked to see how many people are here," said Brenda. "This shows that we will not allow 9-11 to be forgotten. And no matter what your opinion is of the war, whether you support it or are against it, this shows that everyone is united in their support for the soldiers."
"That's because they recognize that you can never take our freedom for granted," her husband said. "As a soldier who has served in Iraq, I can tell you how great it is when you see support for our nation and support for our soldiers. I love to see a program like this work."
Pushing a stroller along the route, Kelly McDonald wore a yellow ribbon pinned to her Freedom Walk T-shirt as she walked with coworkers from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Just days earlier, McDonald had told her husband, Army Capt. Patrick McDonald, who deployed to Iraq in May with the 403rd military Intelligence Detachment, of her plans to take part in the Freedom Walk.
"For me, being here is two-fold," she said as she passed a giant American flag hanging from the side of the Pentagon building, reminiscent of the one hung just hours after the Sept. 11 attack. "It's to memorialize those killed during the tragedy of Sept. 11. But it's also to show support for my husband and his soldiers, as well as all members of the military who are serving."
McDonald said the Freedom Walk sends an important message to all U.S. troops, particularly those like her husband who are serving in harm's way. "It's important for them to know that we are doing this to show our support, and that the American public stands behind them," she said. "Knowing that means a lot to them."
Navy Capt. Dave Duryea from Naval Sea Systems Command, who returned with his wife Colleen for their third Freedom Walk, expressed hope that Freedom Walk will help people refocus on the lessons of Sept. 11. "It's important to remember what happened, and I have concerns that some people are forgetting it," he said.
"We haven't been attacked again, but the threat is still there," he said. "That's why it's important that we remember what happened, and we remember our servicemembers who are deployed overseas and who continue to sacrifice. That's what the Freedom Walk is about."
Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England set the tone for today's Freedom Walk, telling participants the only reason terrorists killed nearly 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11 was that they didn't know how to kill more. The crowd cheered when England extended thanks to the men and women in uniform who gave stood the front lines to protect the United States from another attack.
"We wake up free every morning because great Americans put who put on the uniform of our country for 230 some years have gone forward to protect and defend those freedoms," he said. "We have, as a nation, an amazing debt of gratitude to all these people who have given their lives for these many years for our freedoms and for the freedoms of future generations."
Kelly Wright, co-anchor of Fox & Friends Weekend and a former Army sergeant, served as emcee at the closing concert by the Oak Ridge Boys.
Wright noted the appropriateness of starting the Freedom Walk, where servicemembers who have paid the ultimate price have been laid to rest. Equally symbolic, he said, was its ending point, just steps from the site where 184 lives were snuffed out on Sept. 11, 2001.
Wright told the group he hopes their participation in the Freedom Walk serves as an inspiration and a reminder of the lessons of 9/11. "The Freedom Walk celebrates our freedom and it reminds us of the sacrifice that has been made – and continues to be made," he said.
Today's Freedom Walk kicks off a week of commemorative events leading up to the dedication of the Pentagon Memorial Sept. 11.