"'Do they support us back home?' That was a common question [from the troops] -- which surprised me," said Alison Barber.
That, she told TAS, was when she knew there was a growing and troubling "disconnect" between the boots on the ground and the "many homefront groups doing great work in supporting the troops."
She started to hear these concerned queries in 2004, a year after President Bush had declared "mission accomplished" in Iraq, and that worried her. So Barber, who holds the ungainly title Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Liaison, founded the America Supports You program.
America Supports You (ASY) is a "connector program." It connects servicemen with organizations that lend support to the troops and their families. It also connects pro-troop non-profits with corporate and individual donors.
Nowadays, when troops or their families need assistance that the Department of Defense cannot provide, they can probably find it via an ASY group.
THE RANGE OF activities sponsored by ASY groups is extensive, from sending cards and letters ("Which the troops love getting," said Barber) to building houses for wounded soldiers to providing job training for military spouses.
They offer a wide menu of programs for all members of a military family, said Barber, because it's a shared sacrifice. Take the kids: "Even beyond the obvious ways, like losing a parent, military children sacrifice a lot. Every time that child has to play in a softball game or dance recital and mom or dad isn't there [because s/he is in Iraq], that's a sacrifice, too."
The idea is to lighten that burden a bit. For instance, if the worst happens to soldiers from the Bay State, the ASY affiliated Massachusetts Soldiers Legacy Fund will be there to fund the college education of their children.
The Legacy Fund allows recipients to go to public or private schools; in-state or out. "If the kid wants to study marine biology in Hawaii, we're not going to tell them no. We try to minimize the paperwork and the regulations" for those families that have lost a serviceman, Fund president Peter Trovato explained.
BARBER AND TROVATO believe what they're doing is important because non-profits have a lot of leeway that the Department of Defense does not.
"For instance," Barber offered, "we can fly someone's spouse to their bedside at the hospital -- but what about when they want to see their old college roommate? We can't pay for that. That's where the non-profits come in."
Trovato agrees. "The government does what it can, but with college costs astronomically high -- $40- to $50,000 a year at private colleges -- it can only put a dent in that problem," he said. So that's where the Legacy Fund comes in.
Trovato, 26, was a senior captain on the University of Massachusetts hockey team when he founded the Fund in December 2004. After reading about a fallen Massachusetts soldier who died before having the chance to meet his newborn, Trovato decided to help the families of his state's fallen servicemen.
"I've had so many calls from around the country, saying 'maybe I should do this in [my state,]'" Trovato said. "And if a guy like me -- I was still in college when I started the Fund -- if a guy like me can do this, anyone can. I'd encourage anyone who feels strongly about this issue to start a Legacy Fund in their own state."
Though the Fund currently boasts $2 million in resources, it all started with a $50 check from Trovato's parents. It will be funding its first scholarship in the fall and then two more in 2009.
IN THE COURSE of founding and growing the Legacy Fund, Trovato made a sacrifice of his own -- his hockey career. After graduating from Massachusetts, he bounced around to three different minor league teams before retiring on his own accord.
"I'd be doing board meetings on the team bus in California," Trovato recalled. "But my trustees were fantastic at keeping it together.
"I knew I wasn't going to make it big in hockey," Trovato admitted. "As I thought more about my goals and what was at stake, I knew I had to make a choice." He finally decided to continue what he'd started.
"When the Fund started, we were responsible for 20 kids. Now it's up near 50," he explained. "That's telling as to what's at stake -- and how much work there is to be done."
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