| WASHINGTON, Feb. 21, 2008 Away from the rigors of combat last night on an evening dedicated to their selfless service, the only shootout troops worried about was between dueling National Hockey League teams.
During Military Appreciation Night at the Verizon Center here, the Washington Capitals honored some 5,000 servicemembers and their families with free admission and hosted dozens of wounded warriors from military hospitals. From the giant high-definition screen hanging from the arena's ceiling, shout-outs to servicemembers and videos featuring troops and hockey pros projected onto some 18,000 fans attending the Capitals-New York Islanders contest.
At a pre-game reception in the Dewar's Club, with fat snowflakes visible through the window behind the podium, Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England spoke to a crowd of about 100 VIP guests. England, using the themes of inclement weather and the night's main event, took a playful swipe at his boss, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who injured his shoulder last week after slipping on an icy pathway near his home.
"You know, the secretary is on injured reserve now because he encountered some ice outside," he said. "So it's nice to be here with an ice rink where it all belongs."
On a serious note, England said, military appreciation nights are significant because they bring together Pentagon civilians, military members and business people for one common cause: to thank those who serve the United States to preserve American freedom and liberty. "We are absolutely blessed to have these men and women who serve and all of those who serve for them," he added.
England was introduced by Allison Barber, deputy assistant secretary of defense for internal communications and public liaison. Barber is the founder of America Supports You, a program that connects citizens and corporations with military personnel and their families serving at home and abroad, which organized the military-themed evening.
"America Supports You is a DoD program that makes it easy for everyone in America to find a way to support our troops and our families," she said.
Before the puck dropped, Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited with America Supports You home-front group members tending to kiosks and booths in the main concourse. As Cartwright made his rounds, fans ogled the shiny brass stars on the general's shoulders. "Who's that four-star?" one former Marine, who later introduced himself to the vice chairman, was overheard to say.
Asked how valuable efforts by networks like America Supports You groups are for channeling public support for the military, the general said the benefits are three-fold.
"It makes the troops and their families aware of what opportunities are available to them and it gives people an opportunity to contribute in a way that may not be in a foxhole, and to be given the booth space and acknowledged makes all the difference in the world," he said. "(Events) like this bring all the pieces together."
The general said that American support for troops -- perhaps at a historic low when he joined the Marines during the Vietnam War era -- is critical to men and women in uniform.
"To understand what you're doing makes a difference and that it's appreciated by somebody is 90 percent of what we go out there and fight for is that feeling," he said. "And to lose that feeling is to lose the motivation that you have in the foxhole day in and day out."
Servicemembers honored during the event included wounded warriors from Walter Reed Army Medical Center here; the National Naval Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md.; and Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center, in Richmond, Va.
Asked if military appreciation events boost morale of the wounded warriors, Cartwright said morale is only one part of the equation. "A large piece of it is just getting back out into the population," he said. "It only takes a month or two to lose touch with going in the world. This is a big part of the healing process, this is a big part of the reintegration process."
Army Staff Sgt. Gary Heffernan, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and a member of the Defense Department's "Why We Serve" speakers outreach program, was on hand for the game. The Boston native, who said his father played goalie in the National Hockey League, acknowledged that Americans aren't obliged to display their support for the military.
"So when businesses like the Capitals reach out to the military, it's enormous," he said. "Even when little businesses or schools reach out and say, 'Hey, we support you,' it's enormously meaningful, because the reason why we fight is for the people."
Asked why he thinks they choose to show their support, Heffernan said, "Because they love us. There's no other reason for it."
Capitals owner Ted Leonsis told guests gathered at the pre-game reception that this is the sixth year the Capitals have held military appreciation night. The Caps had won four of the five previous ones, but on this night the Islanders topped the Capitals 3-2 in a shootout.
Leonsis' father, who came to America from Greece, spent seven years in the U.S. Navy, serving on the USS Bunker Hill. Leonsis told the crowd his last memory of his father, who died at age 95 in September, was when Navy sailors honored his memory at the cemetery during his burial.
The flag that was laid over Leonsis' father's casket and presented to the Leonsis family is on display in the Capitals owner's office.
"My father was an American first and foremost, and instilled in all of us the spirit of competitiveness and what a great country this is," Leonsis said. "We should never lose sight that our country is made up of individuals, and the men and women who serve our country really deserve our respect and our thanks, and this is our small way of doing it."
Army Lt. Col. Steve Szewc, who works at the Pentagon as an assistant to the director of the Army staff, said military appreciation night is a good way to show support for military members of all ranks.
"I think this is a great opportunity for the senior leadership to mix with the troops. It's a good, casual forum, and it also lets servicemembers know there are people out there supporting them," he said. "It's more than what you see in the day-to-day news."