Posted Online: Nov. 10, 2012, 2:50 pm

Trip gives me a greater appreciation for military

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By Mara Sovey

More photos from this shoot
Photo: Gary Krambeck
Mara Sovey is director of the Corporate Citizenship Center of Excellence and president of the John Deere Foundation at the John Deere Administration building.
Nominated by the Rock Island Arsenal as a member of the business sector, I was honored recently to join 38 others from across the nation at the Department of Defense' Joint Civilian Orientation Conference.

I had no idea this military immersion program would motivate us to be local champions for our military, their families and veterans. We toured five military branches and developed a deep appreciation for our armed services.

We visited bases in Nevada, California and Washington. Daily briefings, tours and activities expanded our knowledge and respect for sailors, soldiers, airmen, Marines and coasties. We flew in a C-17 aircraft and a Sea Hawk helicopter, sailed the Pacific on the USS Makin Island (amphibious assault ship), jumped from a 65-foot tower, slid down ropes, cruised the Puget Sound aboard the Coast Guard's 25-foot Defender-class boat and floated in survival suits.

It started with a Pentagon briefing before our first flight from Andrews Air Force base to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. High level officers, including generals and an admiral, told countless stories of military life and the sacrifices made to ensure our freedom.

We survived Marine "boot camp" at The Depot in San Diego. With a 4:30 a.m. arrival, we were abruptly awakened by the welcome from our drill sergeant while standing at attention on yellow foot prints that will never leave my memory. Marching in formation was embarrassingly more difficult than it should have been.

We participated in a battlefield training exercise with flak jackets, helmets, rifles and bayonets, jumping into fox holes and taking out the bad guy (tires) with the butts of our rifles.
We saw a live firing exercise at Joint Base Lewis-McChord outside Seattle.

There we sat in field ambulances listening to young medics explain that they're trained to rescue wounded from the battlefield. We met soldiers responsible for mine sweeping, who recently returned from Afghanistan.

Surprising to me, each had volunteered for the dangerous assignment. Perhaps my most impactful memory was a dinner conversation with families of service members who had made the ultimate sacrifice.

We learned the JCOC is an important vehicle to help opinion leaders better understand the mission of the military and its critical role in defending our nation. We grew to understand national defense issues, concerns about defense spending and the challenges of long and multiple deployments.

We learned that less than 1 percent of U.S. citizens serve in our military. I was not aware of the intense emotional, mental and physical training our service members must endure. I was surprised by the young age of our service personnel who had developed maturity beyond their years.

At the end of the week, on the long flight from Seattle to Washington, D.C., there was a bittersweet mood that captured all we experienced and the reality that it was about to be over. Many entered thoughts in journals, expressed gratitude and said goodbye to new friends.

And, as if to keep us grounded in our incredible experience after we landed at Andrews Air Force Base, we were held on the plane. We saw medical personnel carry wounded warriors from an adjacent C-17 that had just landed from Germany. They were transported to Walter Reed Medical Center. It was a very sobering moment.

I returned to the Quad-Cities with a deep respect for our armed services, their missions and all that happens at the Rock Island Arsenal.

I learned a lot about leadership from the men and women serving our country. Being prepared, well trained, well equipped, knowing one's role and having the discipline to adhere to these principles is a solid path for flawless execution.

These young men and women, and their leaders, are excellent role models for these virtues and are ready to defend our freedom — and for that, each of us should be thankful and proud.

I'd like to leave you with a challenge. Every time you meet our servicemen or women, please thank them for their service. I ask you to please give back to those who have given so much; continue to care for service members, veterans, Department of Defense civilians, contractors and their families as they return home to the Quad-Cities.

Work with Rock Island Arsenal and local service members, veterans and their families to connect them to local support, and initiate/retool programs and services to complement existing support systems, partnerships and relationships to enhance the strength, resilience and readiness of our Armed Forces.

With a strong Rock Island Arsenal, we will have a strong region and an even stronger nation.
Mara Sovey is director of the Corporate Citizenship Center of Excellence and president of the John Deere Foundation. She is a board member of the Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce, United Way of the Quad Cities, the John Deere Classic and Renew Moline.