|Volume LVI||February 2009||Number 1|
Change for the Troops
The "Change for the Troops" program continues to reach out and touch the lives of thousands of servicemen and servicewomen protecting our freedom overseas. The program has raised more than $162,419 through the generosity of lodges, brethren and other Masonic groups. Almost as quickly as the money comes in, cards are distributed to deploying units.
On Aug. 20, 2008, 176 members of the U.S. Army Reserve's 320th Military Police Battalion, headquartered in Ashley, departed for a four-to-six-week training at Fort Dix, N.J., and then a 12-month deployment to Iraq. Nearly 600 people attended the official departure ceremony, including Wilkes-Barre Mayor Thomas Leighton and state Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski. Many Masons from the area attended the ceremony. Col. and Bro. Harris Brooks (Ret.) and Bro. Jay W. Smith, R.W. Senior Grand Warden, presented each soldier with a pre-paid calling card. The unit will operate a military prison holding 8,000 al-Qaeda and insurgent detainees. The Commander, Lt. Col. G. Scott Carlson, and most of the leadership of this unit are Pennsylvania Masons.
In September, Bro. Brooks delivered 180 calling cards to members of Stryker Brigade, Company C of the 1st Batallion of the 111th Infantry (1/111th) out of Kutztown, at a send-off ceremony for the troops and their families. He and several other Masons attending the ceremony were approached by members of Charlie Company who identified themselves as Pennsylvania Masons.
"We appreciate all that Pennsylvania Freemasons are doing in support of the Charlie Company," Capt. Peter Muller, Company Commander, said. "These cards are so important for our soldiers to be able to stay in contact with their families while they are deployed."
On Nov. 10, 2008, senior leadership from the Willow Grove Air Reserve Station, including the Wing Commander Col. Paul Comtois and Senior Staff Officers, paid a visit to the Masonic Temple in Philadelphia. Following a private tour of the National Historic Landmark, the guests joined members of Brotherhood Lodge No. 126 for dinner prior to the lodge's business meeting.
Once the brethren closed the lodge, the guests joined them in Egyptian Hall, where they showed their appreciation by presenting R.W. Grand Master Stephen Gardner with a polished chrome bullet from the A-10 aircraft and, on behalf of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, a certificate and an American flag that the 111th Fighter Wing flew on a bombing mission over al-Qaeda targets on Sept. 11, 2008.
Since that meeting, Col. Comtois has received his first degree. It was through his involvement with the Grand Lodge's "Change for the Troops" program that Bro. and Col. Comtois became interested in the fraternity, and he is now a proud member of Brotherhood Lodge No. 126.
This past summer, the Grand Lodge purchased 600 calling cards for battle casualties and troops injured in war zones who are recovering at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. Crews from McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., hand-delivered the cards to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, from which the cards are disbursed to the recuperating troops. For the days prior to their transportation to a stateside hospital, the troops are able to use the cards to call home from the hospital.
On Jan. 13, Grand Master Gardner and Bro. Brooks presented 3,825 calling cards to Col. Marc Ferraro, Commander of the 56th Stryker Brigade, for soliders of the brigade deploying from Fort Dix to the war zone. Col. Ferraro presented Grand Master Gardner with a Liberty Bell plaque and unit coin, as a token of the unit's appreciation. Among the soliders present were several Pennsylvania Freemasons. They were given lapels to distribute to fellow brothers while deployed.
Maj. and Bro. James Fluck, Teutonia Lodge No. 367, West Reading, member of the 56th Stryker Brigade, told the Post, a newspaper published for the Fort Dix Community, this type of generousity is typical of Freemasons and is greatly appreciated.
"Deployment is tough enough. The biggest complaint in the unit was the lack of communication back home," Bro. Fluck said. "The use of these cards will help the morale of the troops a lot!"
The Pennsylvania Army National Guard's 4,000-member Stryker Brigade makes up the largest contingent from the Pennsylvania Guard to deploy to a combat zone since World War II. The brigade has ties leading as far back as the American Revolution. The group deployed to Iraq around Jan. 20.
"I'm glad that so many brothers from Masonic lodges around the state have been able to attend these ceremonies at the different units and experience first-hand the appreciation from these soldiers and their families," Bro. Brooks said. "It is almost like you're part of the soldiers' families. The sense of pride you feel in seeing these fine men and women as they prepare to defend our country is just overwhelming."
Campers Collect Change for the Troops
At the Aug. 14, 2008, Stated Meeting of Jerusalem Lodge No. 506, Philadelphia, members met Ms. Jennifer Johnson, daughter of then-Junior Warden Robert Johnson. Ms. Johnson is the Assistant Director of the Holmesburg Baptist Summer Camp, an eight-week program of the Holmesburg Baptist Church in Philadelphia that serves approximately 80 children. Each year, their mission is to obtain money, food or other items for those in need. After Ms. Johnson's father told her about the "Change for the Troops" program, and reading more about it in "The Pennsylvania Freemason," she decided this would be a great idea for the campers' activities last summer. The campers subsequently collected $600 that Ms. Johnson presented to the lodge for the program.
Home for the Holidays
'Twas days before Christmas when the troops' plane touched down
But alas they were unsure they'd make it home safe and sound
Suddenly through the clearing, two headlights shined
A bus arriving in the nick of time!
The weary soldiers would not have to wait
They'd be home for the holidays thanks to Lodge No. 358.
Much to the delight of the 26 National Guard soldiers returning from five months of training at Fort Polk in Louisiana, they arrived at Fort Indiantown Gap four days before Christmas. As of midnight, they would have a full 10 days to spend with their loved ones before deploying to Iraq. Shortly after their arrival, however, they learned they would have to find their own transportation home. With little time or money to make arrangements, the troops faced spending part of their leave at the military base.
Bro. James Holiday, P.M., Somerset Lodge No. 358, and other members of the lodge have a close relationship with the staff at Fort Indiantown Gap. For the past four years, to give veterans an opportunity to enjoy coffee, donuts, friends and good conversations, they have opened their lodge as a canteen on Veteran's Day. Sgt. Dean Nist, from Fort Indiantown Gap, knew he could turn to Somerset Lodge to deliver the soldiers a Christmas miracle. He phoned Bro. Holiday and asked if the brothers could help.
"They knew we'd do it," Bro. Holiday said, "even if we had to pay full cost for it. My motto is, 'We can do it because we can.'"
A few phone calls later, through the assistance of Griffith Transportation and Brian Walker, transportation director of the Somerset Area School District, Bro. Holiday found a bus and a driver. He quickly collected funds from lodge brothers, District 41 and friends. Some of the troops would be dropped off at the Bedford Interchange and the rest would meet their family members at the Somerset Lodge. Despite it being 5 below zero that night, several of the brothers and their ladies went to the lodge to wait along with the troops' family members.
"Standing there at 3 in the morning and seeing the wives and girlfriends all waiting with their red roses made it well worth what we contributed," Bro. David Neal, W.M., Somerset Lodge No. 358, said. "It's the greatest thing we ever sponsored."
Once the bus arrived, the lodge members served coffee and donuts and talked with the soldiers and their families until 5 a.m.
"We threw everything together in a big hurry but it worked out very nice. It was a blast," Bro. Holiday said. "We never went to bed that night."
The lodge is making an active effort to become more involved in their community, according to Bro. Neal. They've established separate accounts for different projects, whether it is helping a needy family or benefiting the "Change for the Troops" program to support local soldiers.
Due to its support of servicemen and servicewomen through the "Change for the Troops" program, the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania also received requests from military officials to help units on leave return home quickly. Deborah O'Connor, of the Family Readiness Group for Company C of the 1st Batallion of the 111th Infantry, Kutztown, asked if the Grand Lodge could help with bus transportation for units of the Stryker Brigade training at Fort Dix in New Jersey. The Grand Lodge was able to provide the funds (separate from the "Change for the Troops" contributions) to obtain buses for the troops' safe return home to northeast Philadelphia, West Chester and Kutztown.
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