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posted: 5/26/2014 5:30 AM

Operation Support Our Troops provides a taste of home

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  • Volunteers help ship about 120,000 pounds of comfort items to U.S. troops serving away from home every year as part of Operation Support Our Troops America's Care and Comfort Package program.

      Volunteers help ship about 120,000 pounds of comfort items to U.S. troops serving away from home every year as part of Operation Support Our Troops America's Care and Comfort Package program.
    Daily Herald file photo

  • Gary Sinise, center, and the Lt. Dan Band will return July 19 to Cantigny Park in Wheaton for the annual Rockin' for the Troops concert to benefit Operation Support Our Troops America.

      Gary Sinise, center, and the Lt. Dan Band will return July 19 to Cantigny Park in Wheaton for the annual Rockin' for the Troops concert to benefit Operation Support Our Troops America.
    Daily Herald file photo

  • Operation Support Our Troops America has helped bring the Healing Field of Honor to Naperville's Rotary Hill. The displayed flags each represent a veteran or member of the military.

      Operation Support Our Troops America has helped bring the Healing Field of Honor to Naperville's Rotary Hill. The displayed flags each represent a veteran or member of the military.
    Daily Herald File Photo

 
 

Military families learn it's always there.

Worry creeps in when a son or daughter announces an interest in serving or an intent to enlist. Angst wells up when you hug that child -- who seems at once so grown up and so small -- goodbye as he heads off to boot camp or ships out on deployment.

You push your fear down every day he serves, willing yourself to trust your child, his training and his leaders until you hear from him that he's safe.

At those times, you need it most.

The support.

With two sons in the military, Deborah Rickert knows the worry and the fear. But since her oldest pursued an appointment to West Point following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Rickert has become a key provider of support for military families and the deployed men and women they love.

Operation Support Our Troops started humbly, with a few moms gathered around Rickert's kitchen table offering each other support as they put together care packages for their sons in the armed forces. It wouldn't take long before other families started asking the group to send boxes of support to their service members as well, and the group soon would begin working out of donated warehouse space.

The Naperville-based organization has grown into Operation Support Our Troops America, reflecting its national reach; requests to send care packages come in from all over the nation.

But beyond offering care packages, the agency has come to offer an array of support for military family members as well as for returning veterans. The Family Resource and Support Team helps new military families learn about military life while providing camaraderie for those at home. The team even creates Baby Baskets to support the pregnant wives of deployed troops.

And when a son or daughter doesn't come home, Operation Support Our Troops seeks to help families through the grief with both initial support and with the Leap of Faith program. Leap of Faith seminars help families cope with their grief and begin to move forward with their lives in a way that honors their loved ones.

The "leap" is literal, as well as figurative -- participants finish the seminar by skydiving with veterans of the Army's Golden Knights parachute team.

As we pause today to honor those who died in military service, Rickert tells us more about Operation Support Our Troops America.

Q. What is your organization's mission?

A. To support the morale and well-being of America's military deployed in harm's way, their families and the returning veteran.

Q. How do you work toward accomplishing that goal?

A. Our Care and Comfort Package program ships about 120,000 pounds of comfort items yearly to troops serving away from home in dangerous places. We also hold seminars and growth opportunities for families of fallen service members. In addition, we have programs that provide crisis assistance to transitioning veterans.

Q. What area do you serve?

A. Nationally.

Q. When and why did Operation Support Our Troops start? How has it grown?

A. The organization began in 2003 when my son decided to join the military after the attacks of Sept. 11. Several local families joined me in an effort to support those troops who were already deploying and the families left behind.

Over the years, the organization has served as a base of support for families in the Chicago area dealing with the stress and hardships of multiple deployments and transitions back into the nonmilitary community. And, sadly, a base of support for those whose loved ones have not returned.

Our Leap of Faith Seminar, for example, is a three-day seminar that focuses on living beyond grief and loss and in a way that honors the sacrifice of the loved one who was lost. Through a partnership with the All-Veteran Parachute Team, the participants take a literal "Leap of Faith" on Day Three of the seminar in the form of a tandem sky-dive with one of the veteran parachutists as a symbolic letting go, having faith and stepping into the unknown of the "new normal."

Q. What kind of successes have you had?

A. Rockin' for the Troops has been, perhaps, the single most impact event in our history. By partnering with actor, director and musician Gary Sinise and our host, Cantigny Park, we have developed a day of support and fundraising that has not only funded the programs of OSOT America, but more than two dozen other military and veteran support organizations. This year's event, on July 19, is our ninth Rockin' for the Troops Concert.

Q. What challenges does the organization face?

A. Apathy and lack of awareness by the general public. With only half of 1 percent of the population serving in the military, there is a lack of understanding by the citizenry about military life and military family life.

It is especially troubling when veterans transition back into the general population because they often feel a deep lack of connectivity.

In addition, for families that still have loved ones deploying, it can be very lonely for them with the general population not even being aware that we are still sending (and losing) young men and women to foreign and dangerous countries.

Q. What do you wish the community at large knew about the organization?

A. We are a volunteer-based organization and many of our volunteers do not have anyone serving in the military but volunteer as their way of serving their country.

Q. How can readers get involved?

A. One of the easiest and most fun ways is to buy a ticket and come out for Rockin' for the Troops on July 19 at Cantigny Park. Tickets are at Jewel-Osco stores in Wheaton, Naperville and select other stores. Visit our website, osotAmerica.org, for other ways to get involved.

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