Community Covenant reaches out to troops

The American Legion has endorsed the nationwide Community Covenant program, which fosters effective state and local partnerships that improve the quality of life for U.S. servicemembers and their families. Cities and towns pledge their support at signing ceremonies for military families with written covenants, which often include specific programs and initiatives designed to make life easier for warriors and their loved ones.

Craig Whelden, a retired Army major general, leads the Community Covenant effort and recently briefed the Legion’s national leadership. He spoke with The American Legion Online Update.

Q: How did Community Covenant get started, and what need does it fulfill? A: We’re in the seventh year of this war. It’s the longest war in our nation’s history with an all-volunteer force. There’s less than one third of 1 percent of Americans who are actively engaged with this war, and the vast majority of the rest of America is going about their daily lives.

So the Secretary of the Army, given that it’s an all-volunteer force and many soldiers and family members and servicemembers are sacrificing an awful lot, thought that this is an opportunity for us to engage the American public in their communities, and raise the level of visibility of the service, sacrifices of servicemembers and their families to the next level, beyond what it currently is. And through that, hopefully we’ll engage new levels of support for our servicemembers and their families.

The vehicle by which we do that is trying to inspire across the country, in every city, every town and every state, these Community Covenant signing ceremonies. A mayor or governor typically signs a covenant that basically shows their support for the servicemembers and their families. And it’s an opportunity for the military to also thank the community for the support that they provide.

We began about a year ago, but in the course of eight months, we’ve inspired 85 ceremonies that 19 governors or lieutenant governors and 216 mayors participated in. I think that far exceeded the expectations of the Secretary of the Army, so much so that he thought, “Let’s take advantage of the momentum we had in 2008, and see if we can reach deeper into America, to those communities that have not been yet touched, to get them engaged.” And that’s what 2009 is all about.

Q: Why did you reach out to The American Legion? How can Legionnaires help with Community Covenant? A: As the program progressed, and as civilian aides to the Secretary of the Army became engaged in local communities, cities and towns right outside the gates of Army installations, I started thinking about other organizations that might help us with this effort. And as such, I reached out to a number of veterans service organizations.

This year our vision is to reach into what I call “Middle America,” which is Wichita, Kan.; Fresno, Calif.; Concord, N. H. – places where you don’t necessarily have large concentrations of soldiers like you do at Fort Hood, Fort Bliss and so forth. But still, you’ve got very patriotic Americans, and they are the hometowns of many servicemembers and their families.

And what better organization than a veterans service organization like The American Legion, that can be found in hundreds of these communities, to help with that effort? That’s the reason I initially reached out, through (former National Adjutant) Bob Spanogle, who happens to be a CASA, and Doug Givens, who happens to be a reserve ambassador. And I said I was very impressed with the leadership of The American Legion last year, and if they were inclined to help, they would be a wonderful partner in this effort in 2009.

I’m asking The American Legion to help engage communities in America, and every community is different. So the first step is to define the community, and that has to be done locally. Clearly, every state is a community, and every governor is the commander in chief of the National Guard in his or her state. So there is a community, no question. And I would hope we could engage every governor to host one of these statewide ceremonies. The American Legion could help me engage those governors.

Likewise, local American Legion organizations could do similar outreach to mayors of the towns and cities where they live. Any military presence in these communities is an opportunity for the civilians to demonstrate their support for the military and their families through a Community Covenant signing ceremony. I’m not asking The American Legion to run a ceremony; in fact, I don’t want it to, because that’s a case of veterans recognizing veterans. We’re trying to reach out to the civilians, and that’s what I’m asking the Legion to help us with – get an understanding of what we’re trying to achieve, then reach out to the community through the mayor’s office, or friends of the mayor, or military affairs committees, to plant the seed for a Community Covenant signing ceremony.

If that seed starts to grow, and you detect interest in that mayor or governor, then have them contact me. I can coach them and provide them with tool kits for ceremonies. They don’t have to start from scratch. We have plenty of materials on our Web site.

Q: Will you give us some examples of towns or cities where covenants have been signed, and specific programs that have been created from those signings that really support the troops? A: In central Texas, the largest military presence is Fort Hood. There is an organization called the Central Texas Defense Alliance, run by a retired Army colonel for seven towns and four counties in that area. They ran the ceremony at Fort Hood.

Central Texas College is located in Killeen, Texas, right outside the gate of the fort. It serves, primarily, soldiers and their family members in getting college educations. The chancellor of that college stood up at the signing ceremony and announced a new initiative to provide free tuition to any Purple Heart recipient or family member since 9/11 – at any of the college’s campuses. They have about 20 to 30 campuses worldwide, including Kuwait and Japan. That’s huge. That’s tens of thousands of potential recipients. So there’s an example of an educational benefit.

Another example is a foundation in Colorado Springs, at the ceremony that was done last year in support of Fort Carson. A foundation there wrote a check for $60,000 so that a battalion deploying to Iraq could take its family members to see the Barnum & Bailey Circus that was in town.

When El Paso, Texas, did a ceremony last year at Fort Bliss, the chamber of commerce decided to do an adopt-a-unit program. In these programs, a business adopts a platoon or company, stays engaged with the soldiers while they’re deployed, sends them things, and also stays engaged with the family members who remain behind to provide them with assistance in a number of ways. And that program has easily migrated to other communities.

Finally, the one that is probably closest to my heart is the support for Army Wounded Warriors. If a community wants to help them, we can easily connect them to one of 120 advocates for seriously wounded warriors located across the country. And our program has made arrangements to facilitate connections between the soldiers themselves and communities who want to help them. For all of these signing ceremonies, I’d encourage local communities to contact the advocate in their area. And you can get the contact information right from the Army Wounded Warrior Web site.

Q: What has changed in U.S. society since the Vietnam War era that enables a program like Community Covenant to succeed? A: The information age has helped. People are able to see more clearly what their servicemembers do. That’s one aspect. There’s more awareness of the sacrifices of our servicemembers and their families. We have a 100-percent all-volunteer force now, whereas it was a draft back in the Vietnam era. The war on terror is not as controversial, irrespective of your party affiliation or your politics.

Most Americans recognize there is a war on terror, and there are people in the world who would like to see the United States harmed. With an all-volunteer force that is much smaller than the Vietnam-era force, most Americans recognize that there is a very small percentage of people who are sacrificing an awful lot in what is soon to be the longest war in our nation’s history. And they want to do something to help.

It transcends politics, it transcends how you might feel about warfare and peace and so forth, and most Americans today realize that the military, as the Harris Poll has shown year after year, is one of the most respected institutions in America. And what makes it that way are the wonderful American servicemembers who serve their country today and are sacrificing so much. Many Americans realize that; they’d love to step up and help in any way they can. It’s just many of them haven’t been afforded the opportunity, and the Community Covenant is an opportunity for them to do exactly that.