Vet News: "Why We Serve' Program Connects Servicemembers, Civilians

WASHINGTON, Jan. 7, 2008 – Media outlets portray a version of the U.S. military as seen from the outside, but Americans across the country can access the primary source: hearing the military experience described by a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine who lives it.

At universities, high schools and rotary clubs in scores of U.S. cities, “Why We Serve,” a Defense Department outreach program, is connecting men and women in uniform to the American public they serve. Started in July 2006, the program provides a platform for servicemembers recently returned from operations in Afghanistan, Iraq or the Horn of Africa to discuss their experiences with the country at large.

“Americans want a way to hear directly from the men and women in uniform who have served. They want to hear personal stories and experiences first-hand,” said Jennifer Giglio, the program’s deputy director. “By providing the public one-on-one interaction with their military, Why We Serve creates that opportunity.”

Now in its sixth quarterly iteration, the outreach program conceived by then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Peter Pace underscores an effort by the Defense Department to bridge gaps between military and civilian cultures. The program is apolitical by design, and speakers do not address department policies; rather, each member offers Americans a glimpse of military life as seen through the eyes of someone in uniform.

The current group of a dozen servicemember speakers comprises a diverse swath of the armed forces that includes a wide range of military branch and rank, and represents both sexes, as well as many races and creeds. Three members from each service branch make up this iteration, and together they account for 130 years of military experience.

The breadth of the speakers’ backgrounds and experience is matched by the vast geography the tour encompasses: In January alone, participants will appear at 31 engagements in 15 cities, from Sarasota, Fla., to San Diego, in addition to three radio interviews with a station in Riverside, Iowa.

Community organizations, business associations, academic institutions, Veterans groups, and other nonprofit or nonpartisan organizations may invite a Why We Serve speaker by making a request online at The Defense Department provides speakers to approved host organizations anywhere in the country free of charge.

By hosting uniformed servicemembers to speak about their individual experiences in current U.S. operations, audiences around the country are offered a personal and relevant perspective on military service.

“No longer do Americans need to rely on the media alone for balanced coverage,” Giglio said. “They can request a servicemember to speak in their local community, and have the opportunity to ask questions and hear answers from someone who has had their boots on the ground.”

Speakers from the most recent iteration include Marine Staff Sgt. John Costa, a native of Somerville, Mass., who deployed to Iraq’s Anbar province in August 2006, when the region was one of the country’s most contentious.

During Why We Serve engagements, Costa, who decided as a boy to join the U.S. military to help the “greater good,” told audiences how efforts by coalition forces tamped down violence in Ramadi, creating the political breathing room necessary to forge vital alliances between local tribal sheiks and coalition operators.

Though it was widely covered in the news media, Costa offered audiences a unique perspective on what was later dubbed the “Anbar Awakening,” a societal purging of extremism by Anbaris that ushered in a level of stability unprecedented since U.S. operations in Iraq began.

“In the end, it turned out that Ramadi did a complete 180,” Costa told American Forces Press Service during a November 2007 interview. “I got pictures in September from the unit that had relieved us, and I just couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think I was looking at the same city.”

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Defense

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