By Carmen L. Gleason
American Forces Press Service
April 30, 2007 – After traveling nearly 18,000 miles to see the young men and women of the U.S. armed forces in Southwest Asia, members of the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference 73 have come away from the experience with a heightened respect for those who are serving the nation. The 45 participants were civic and business leaders from around the country who covered their own expenses to join in the Defense Department's oldest public affairs program by visiting servicemembers from each branch to learn more about the military's role in operations in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility.
The weeklong tour began at the military's headquarters at the Pentagon before moving on to Djibouti, Bahrain, Kuwait and other bases in Southwest Asia, including a visit to the USS Dwight. D. Eisenhower in the Arabian Gulf.
"I hope that this trip will expand the way you view liberty and freedom," said JCOC co-host Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of defense for internal communications and public liaison, at the start of the trip. "(The war on terror) is not just a military solution; it's broader than that. It's also an economic, intelligence and coalition solution."
During their whirlwind trip, participants heard from both the most senior military leaders at each location and individual troops who are carrying out the nation's mission. They had the chance to fire weapons, ride in Humvees, land on a naval aircraft carrier, and experience a little of the training servicemembers go through in preparation for deployments.
They were also given briefings on how the United States is working with allies to bring security and stability to countries in an effort to help build economic and governmental independence.
The majority of the trip's participants had little to no previous interaction with the U.S. military, and while they are leaders from a variety of backgrounds -- finance, sports, entertainment, political, academic and business industries -- they all said they wanted a better context of the nation's role in the Middle East.
"The knowledge one gains from being an alert reader from media and books doesn't compare with the immersion experience we've had over the past week," said Ann Brownwell Sloane, who is the chief executive officer and owner of Sloane and Hinshaw, Inc., a company that provides planning, administrative and counseling services to U.S. and overseas grant-making foundations and individual philanthropists. "I wish everyone could have this experience," she said.
Sloane said she feels that most Americans haven't taken on any burden of this war. "I find it dismaying that people will walk away from their television sets because they aren't connecting with the messages of the leadership on our role (in the Middle East)," she said.
JCOC participant John Turner, an associate with the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, said the trip has given him a different perspective on the U.S. military's role in the region.
"I am impressed with the way information has been integrated into the modern military," he said. "It also makes me understand the agenda of the governments in the region a little better."
Turner works with major media companies in the Middle East and Europe. Through an International Affairs Fellowship from the Council on Foreign Relations, he has also worked with the State Department on economic, political and educational reform in the Middle East.
"We have gotten a lot of context from this trip," Turner said. "Now when we read these stories in the media, we'll better understand the peripheral and cultural impacts on the area."
The U.S. military has been using the research from JCOC participant Amy Coen's organization, Population Action International, in its leadership schools to better understand the impact of age, poverty levels and education on urbanization and civil conflict between nations.
Coen said she wanted to participate in the trip to gain more insight into how the military is working with societies to develop better governance, security and growth strategies in underdeveloped countries.
"I think the military understands the importance of developing friendships to create environments for positive change," she said.
Coen said she was deeply touched by the bravery, commitment and patriotism of soldiers on the ground. "I had no idea how hard this job was and miserable it is, in terms of heat and fear," she said after going through a convoy exercise where soldiers train on detecting improvised explosive devices. "To have to daily go through these physical and psychological demands; I'm utterly impressed with our military."
Other trip participants were equally affected by the dedication of the young men and women serving so far from home. Many formed personal friendships with troops and were moved to tears when interacting with them on an individual basis.
Wal-mart Foundation Community Program Development Manager Kathleen Cox has worked on numerous military outreach programs since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to communicate her company's dedication and support of the U.S. military. However, she said she didn't realize how much the trip would touch her on a personal level.
Although she came on the trip armed with hundreds of phone cards to pass out to all troops with whom she interacted, she also had the opportunity to interact with National Guard troops from near her hometown of Bentonville, Ark.
"They were so thankful for the phone cards, but the words of thanks and hugs from us meant so much more to them," she said. "Even though we weren't able to see each and every soldier, I hope the message will get to others about how much we appreciate what they're doing over here."
Oklahoma Secretary of State Susan Savage said she was in awe throughout the trip.
"It never dawned on me that my visit could boost the morale of these troops," she said. "This was the best experience."
Whenever Savage would learn that servicemembers in an area were from her home state, she would take the time to seek them out and get information so that she could get in touch with their families once she got back home.
"You guys are inspirational. It's great to come out here and learn what you are doing so far from home," Savage told Army Spc. Dustin Ackerman, a Tulsa, Okla., native, when she met him on a training range in Kuwait.
Ackerman also had the opportunity to interact with the President of Fat Brain Toy Company, John Batcher. The soldier had recently placed an order for kites from the company to be shipped to Kuwait. When he saw Batcher's name on the list of visitors to the area, he left a letter for Batcher telling him who he was. Batcher worked with leaders in the area to meet Ackerman. He and the soldier flew one of the kites together on the training range.
"This has made my year right here," Ackerman said after meeting Batcher and Savage.
"That's what JCOC is all about," Batcher said. "It's to make soldiers feel good and let them know we support them."
Batcher also took down the names of soldiers' children throughout the trip so he could send them toys from his company as a show of appreciation for their service to the nation.
The JCOC trip has other participants brainstorming on what they can do to show support for America's men and women in the armed forces.
Kelli Johnson, president of ACE Clearwater Enterprises, an engineering and manufacturing firm in Torrance, Calif., said that she and other participants are planning to come together to do something "meaningful" in support of the nation's military.
"It's our obligation," she said. "We're not exactly sure what that is at the moment, but how can we say, 'We're here for you and support you' but then go back home and do nothing?"
"I am so incredibly impressed with this entire trip," Johnson said. "I am humbled, inspired and proud of our troops. They make me proud to be an American."
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