Freedom Walk Organizers Share Successes, Look Toward 2007 Events

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 3, 2006 - Organizers of some of the 130-plus Freedom Walks around the country that commemorated the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States and honored America's veterans gathered here at the Pentagon today to explore ways to make next year's event even more successful.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld thanked the organizers for making this year's Freedom Walk observances a big success. He praised them, and all other groups that make up the Defense Department's America Supports You program, for their generosity and compassion. "It's an inspiration," he said, "and you are all a part of that."

Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs who organized the first Freedom Walk in Washington in 2005, thanked this year's organizers for building on that concept and taking it national.

She recalled the 2005 Freedom Walk, which attracted some 15,000 participants who walked from the Washington Monument to the Pentagon. Even as that event was still in the planning stages, Barber said Defense Department officials already were setting their sites on expanding it to other parts of the country.

"You made that work" and are helping establish "a new national tradition that is becoming part of the fabric of this country," she told the Freedom Walk organizers today.

"Thank you for understanding the importance of the Freedom Walk and of honoring our veterans past and present and remembering what happened on Sept. 11," she said.

Marine Col. Katie Haddock represented Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in thanking the organizers and called their efforts "heartwarming." In her travels with Pace, Haddock said she frequently hears troops ask the general if, five years after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, the American people are still behind them. Events like the Freedom Walk demonstrate that they are, she said.

"Thank you for your energy in putting Freedom Walks together so we can hold that up for the troops to show them that yes, the American people are out there," she said.

Among participants in today's session was 9-year-old Colton Lockner, who organized a Freedom Walk in Sebring, Ohio, that attracted some 2,000 participants. Lockner was thrilled by the opportunity to meet with fellow Freedom Walk organizers at the Pentagon, but admitted to being torn because he had hoped to maintain his perfect attendance record at school until he graduates. Only when his principal assured him that his absence wouldn't be counted against him, did Lockner decide to accept his Pentagon invitation.

As Lockner and other Freedom Walk organizers shared their experiences, they agreed that the Freedom Walk momentum created in September will continue to build.

Will Schmutz, who helped organize the Chicago Freedom Walk, said cold rain during this year's event did little to dampen the participants' enthusiasm. "After the walk, people were coming out of the woodwork, asking if we were going to do it again next year," he said.

Cathy Williams, an organizer for the Bellevue, Neb., Freedom Walk agreed. "People are already talking about what we can do next year," she said.

C. Renzi Stone, who helped plan Oklahoma City's Freedom Walk, said the state's five military bases and the city's own history of terrorism made it a natural fit for a Freedom Walk. "Bringing the Freedom Walk to Oklahoma seemed like a no-brainer," he said. "We had great community support and a very successful event."

The organizers called Freedom Walks a tangible way for people to commemorate Sept. 11 and pay tribute to those who protected the country through its history and continue to defend it today.

"People want to be a part of recognizing our troops and showing support," said George Goldsmith, from Columbia, S.C. "The Freedom Walk offers them a way to do that."

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