'Salute Our Services' Supports GIs, Families

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 28, 2007 - A northern-Virginia-based nonprofit organization has provided worldwide assistance to families of deployed U.S. servicemembers for the past six years.

Founded in mid-2001, Salute Our Services augments existing military family support programs by providing information and services for spouses and children of deployed military members, Patricia Johnson, the group's chief executive officer, said from her office in Reston, Va., during a phone interview with American Forces Press Service.

Sharing information and concerns with other military spouses who've experienced times when their spouses were deployed "provides you with perspective and makes you better prepared and equipped to handle it in a good way," Johnson, a military spouse herself, explained.

Johnson recalled feeling isolated years ago when her husband was away on deployments. Family members belonging to his Maryland-based Army reserve unit were dispersed across several states, she noted.

Johnson's unease was made worse, she said, because, "I wasn't part of a crowd that had military experience."

An SOS-sponsored virtual family readiness group Internet site was established in 2002, Johnson said. It provided spouses of deployed servicemembers who may live hundreds of miles apart the ability to share information of mutual interest.

Today, those secure sites are managed by U.S. Army Community and Family Services, she said, and they service at least 1,000 Army units across the United States.

SOS is proud to partner with America Supports You, a Defense-Department sponsored program highlighting the ways Americans are supporting the nation's servicemembers, Johnson said.

"America Supports You has been great," Johnson said. Association with the DoD program has helped her organization obtain assistance from high-profile celebrities such as National Basketball Association superstar Shaquille O'Neal, she said.

The SOS group manages a mentorship program that connects military family members experiencing a spouse's deployment for the first time with someone who's already been through that experience, Johnson said.

SOS-provided assistance for military families also includes grants and other programs, Johnson said. For example, one initiative provides military families with deployed spouses living in Fairfax County, Va., with free admission to county-provided recreational activities.

Other programs offer family outings to local professional sporting events, Johnson said. And O'Neal is participating in the SOS-sponsored "A Thousand Thanks to Military Children" program. The Miami Heat player is helping to send out thank you letters to children of deployed servicemembers.

Each letter is personalized "so that the child realizes that Dad or Mom, whoever is deployed, is thinking about them," Johnson said.

Studies show military members perform better during deployments if they're not distracted by family issues from back home, she said.

"If they don't have to worry about us back home, then they are better able to do their jobs," Johnson pointed out.

Karen McCoy, 42, the wife of a Virginia Army National Guard staff sergeant, obtained SOS grants for her son and daughter after her husband deployed in December 2005 for more than a year of duty in Kosovo.

McCoy used one grant for ballet lessons for her then-11-year-old daughter, she said. The other grant, she added, paid for her then-10-year-old actor son's voice lessons. These after-school activities, McCoy explained, helped to keep her children engaged in positive activities while their father was away.

SOS offers much-appreciated assistance for military families, McCoy, a Herndon, Va., resident, said. Organization representatives "were always asking if there was anything more that they could provide," she recalled.

"Salute Our Services was very responsive," McCoy said. "They are full of energy and very helpful."

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