The Beginning of a Remarkable Journey
As we rode on the train from Anaheim to San Diego, I had no idea that my life was about to change. The Amtrak Surfliner was great, and I loved looking out the window to see all the sights. Against the deep blue Pacific Ocean, I saw people surfing near the San Onofre power plant because the water is warmer closer to the reactor. There was a line of cars waiting to get through the border patrol's checkpoint, and U.S. and Marine Corps flags flew high over Camp Pendleton. I saw the tall buildings of San Diego State University where I would later dorm during a basketball tournament (we placed fourth out of sixty-four teams that weekend). The marine training facility near the beach buzzed with activity, with helicopters hovering, tanks in motion, and navy ships anchored just off shore.
All of this was fascinating to look at, but it didn't diminish the fact that I really didn't want to be there. It was Thanksgiving Day, 2002, and we were supposed to be home having dinner together as a family. Instead, my dad agreed to arrange a meal for a few hundred strangers--soldiers and their families--at the USO. I knew he had been involved in doing things for the troops, collecting valentines Americans wrote for them and that sort of thing, but at thirteen, I didn't really pay much attention to any of it. All I knew now was that this wasn't going to be a real Thanksgiving. Yes, our family was going to be together (my younger brother Ryan, my mom and dad, my Grandpa Nate and Grandma Betty, my Aunt Sandee and Uncle Mike, and me), but we would be eating with hundreds of people we didn't know.
When we got to the USO, though, I started to feel differently about things almost immediately. The people there were either soldiers back on leave or family members of soldiers who were away defending our country. Most of them lived on bases, and this USO was the closest thing they had to home. They didn't have much of a choice about where they were going to spend their Thanksgiving. I could see they really appreciated having a place to celebrate and that people cared enough to do something like this for them. It made me feel a little guilty for complaining to my parents earlier about having to make the trip.
We began decorating the upstairs hall for the Thanksgiving meal. There were rows and rows of tables. My mom and aunt hung Happy Thanksgiving
signs and pictures of turkeys and pilgrims. My dad, my brother, and I set up an area with games in which soldiers and families could win prizes my dad had delivered there earlier that week. The rest of our family helped the cooks finish preparing the dozens of turkeys in the USO's huge kitchen.
A few days earlier, the USO had called my dad for help when their main food donor backed out at the last minute, leaving them with no food to serve. He'd helped them out in the past with donations of prizes for various events, and they knew he was in the fun center and restaurant business. My dad enlisted the help of Kevin Davis, the CEO of Bristol Farms (a large grocery store chain) and the father of my friend Kristen. He agreed to donate most of the food.
While we served dinner, I looked around the room and thought it was great that Kevin and my dad had helped the USO and these people so much. Amazingly, it seemed like a traditional Thanksgiving (if your family was really, really huge).
After the meal, I operated a spinning wheel where kids could win prizes. This was a big deal to these kids because money was tight for most of their families, and the kids couldn't simply get toys whenever they wanted them. There was also something called the Santa Store, which the USO runs before Christmas for military families who can't afford gifts for each other. At the Santa Store, stocked with donations from local businesses, they can pick gifts for each other without charge. Throughout the USO, there was a real sense of festivity, and I could see it was a special event for everyone involved.
Seeing the looks on people's faces as they ate, played games, and chose Christmas presents, I began to realize how important something like this was to them. They weren't with their extended families, as they might be on holidays when they or their loved ones weren't in the service, but they were with people who understood and appreciated what they were going through. Suddenly it didn't seem like such a big deal for me to give up my normal Thanksgiving. In fact, this kind of Thanksgiving started to feel pretty good.
The most touching moment--and the one that literally changed my attitude toward the military--came when my dad handed out some of the valentines he'd received late during the previous February. He walked over to a soldier about to leave and gave him a packet of valentines. The soldier seemed amazed at the gesture.
"There are a lot of people who appreciate what you're doing for them," my dad said.
I could tell this really touched the soldier but also that he wasn't accustomed to this kind of treatment. He looked my dad in the eye and said, "Thank you, sir." Then he turned to go. As he walked away, though, I saw him wipe away tears. I looked back at my dad and saw he was doing the same thing. That's when everything clicked for me. At that very moment I realized how much our appreciation meant to our troops, and I really wanted to let them know how much they meant to us. As we rode back on the train that night, I had a completely different feeling in my heart than I'd had on the ride down.
A few months later, just before Valentine's Day, we went down to March Air Force Base in Riverside, California. (March AFB has a history that goes back many decades. Bob Hope performed his first USO radio broadcast from one of its hangars.) Security was extremely heavy because things were heating up in the Middle East. When we pulled up, some soldiers directed us to a special "holding area" for large vehicles. Several soldiers then inspected every inch of our van. When one of them opened the back and asked what was in the boxes there, I said, "Valentines...Would you like some?" He smiled and said "Maybe later" as he looked through them to make sure they were, in fact, valentines.
They escorted us to a meeting room in a hangar where the soldiers who are being deployed wait for their flights. The room was full of uniformed soldiers, all of whom were pilots. The war in Iraq was about to begin and the pilots here knew that in the near future they would find themselves in harm's way on a daily basis. My dad and I gave them boxes and boxes of valentines. The pilots were stunned that so many people had taken the time to make them. They were even more amazed to discover that the valentines we delivered were a small fraction of the number we collected.
I held up a couple of huge banners made by some elementary school children. One in particular attracted a lot of attention. It consisted of red, white, and blue handprints that formed the shape of an American flag. One of the pilots asked for it; he said he was leaving the next day for the Middle East and wanted it for his tent. As I looked around I could see intense emotion in the eyes of these military people. Many put the cards we handed out in their duffel bags, and I knew those valentines would be going halfway around the world very soon.
I can only imagine how nervous most of the soldiers in the room were that day, not knowing when they would be shipping out or what was going to happen to them in the near future. The looks of appreciation on their faces, however, went straight to my heart. We had done something so little compared to what they were doing and what they were about to do, but it meant so much to them. This reinforced for me how important it was to be involved in projects like my dad's, to do everything I could to help them feel as good as possible about what they were doing. If our troops were going to war to defend us, I wanted to make sure they knew just how much we appreciated their sacrifice.
* * *
That fall, I started going to Lutheran High School in Orange, California, and it was a busy time for everyone in my family. I was in some tough classes and adjusting to being in a new school with mostly new people. I was also on the basketball team, and practices took a lot of my time--so much that I had to give up my Tae Kwon Do lessons. It seemed that all of my days were full. At least, that's what I thought.
Valentines for the troops were still being sent to our church because so many people heard about what my dad had already done, but he wasn't able to run an all-out campaign the way he had the year before. In March, I realized that the activity had become really important to me. I missed it, and felt that I was letting a lot of people down by not doing more.
One night, I went up to my dad's office while he was working away on his computer. I told him I felt bad that we had let Valentine's Day go by without doing much for the troops. Considering that a war was going on, I felt embarrassed that we were too busy with our own lives to show appreciation for people who were doing so much for us. I told him I wanted to do something to show the troops that we really cared for them.
I knew that I wanted to do something, but I still didn't know what it was. Finally I decided that I would collect thank-you letters from all over the country for our troops. This would show them that all of us at home were thankful for what they were doing. I went back to my dad and told him. The year before, I had joined him on a trip to Washington, D.C., where he'd helped his friend Alice Wax gain support in her drive to establish an official National Military Appreciation Month (NMAM) every May. I told my dad that I wanted to collect the thank-you letters as my contribution toward NMAM. He told me he thought this was great, but said I should have a specific goal in mind.
"Why don't you try to collect a million letters?"
He probably thought this was going to intimidate me in some way, but that number didn't sound scary at all. I just looked at him and said, "Okay, I'll do it."
Now I needed to come up with a name for my project. I again went to my dad, who is good at that kind of stuff. He said that my "project" was actually becoming a "campaign," and he suggested calling it "Thanks a Million, Troops." Since I knew we needed a Web site to extend our reach, I searched the Internet to see if I could get a Web address with
"Thanks a Million" in it. Unfortunately, all of the "Thanks a Million" URLs were taken. We thought about it some more and decided to try "A Million Thanks." The Web address www.amillionthanks.org was available and we quickly snapped it up. The "campaign" now had a name.
I knew I would need a lot of help to make this happen. Since my school requires every student to work on community service projects, I thought it would be a good place to drum up support. To get my school's backing I would have to start at the top, so I went to see my principal, Mr. Gregg Pinick. It was a little strange for a freshman to ask for an appointment with the principal and I felt a little awkward about it, but I kept telling myself this was really important.
When I told him my plan, I expected him to ask me a lot of questions and to be skeptical about my ability to do anything on that scale. Instead, he was immediately positive. He told me he thought it would be a great service project
for the students, but if I was going to pull something like this off, I had to present the idea to the faculty. I needed the complete support of the teachers in order to get a large number of students involved.
As a freshman, I really only knew my own teachers, and as my mom drove me to a faculty meeting that Friday, I had no idea what to expect. Would the faculty stand up and applaud? Would they think this was a stupid freshman idea? Would they just ignore me? What if I made a fool of myself and for the rest of my high-school career teachers came up to me saying, "You were that really weird girl who tried to speak to us about your dumb idea"? On top of this, Mr. Pinick, who I knew was on my side, wasn't going to be at this meeting; Mr. Kevin Kromminga, the vice principal, would be introducing me instead.
My mom drove me to school and said she'd wait in the car. Before I stepped out, she said a prayer for me, which helped calm me down a little. The faculty meeting was on a day when there were no classes, and I'm sure some of the teachers wondered what I was doing there. It was a little awkward, but I just had to tough it out.
Finally, the vice principal called me up. I went to the front of the room with a poster board on which I put pictures from our Thanksgiving with the USO and our visit to March Air Force Base. I also carried two handouts; one was a timeline of what I planned to do and the other was a press release that my dad had prepared to announce the kickoff of the program.
It was only then that I realized I'd never done anything like this before. I once heard that a poll found that more people would rather be the one in the coffin than the person speaking at a funeral. I wasn't afraid of public speaking, but this audience was different from any I'd ever addressed before. I started talking and looked around the room to see how people were responding. The teachers who had me for a student seemed to be paying attention, but the rest of the teachers seemed only to be listening casually. This wasn't good. If I only had my seven teachers against the other hundred, my plans weren't going to get very far at all.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from A Million Thanks by Shauna Fleming. Copyright © 2005 by Shauna Fleming. Excerpted by permission of Random House Audio, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.