Arundel Mills shoppers take time to salute overseas troops

Army Reserve unit tapes messages to be aired on military channels

March 17, 2011|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

She was on her way to the food court, still deciding between a sandwich and a slice of pizza for dinner, when Sabaheta Alek-Finkelman spotted the men and women in uniform.

"Would you like to record a shout-out to the troops overseas?" asked Army Spc. Nicholas Lomison, 19, in his friendliest salesman's voice. "It's free, you know."

Alek-Finkelman didn't hesitate.

"Hello, military," she said into a camera and microphone set up near the Chili's Too at the Arundel Mills mall. "I'd like to extend my deepest gratitude for what you're doing. We support and love you … and want you to come home safe."

It was nearly 7 p.m., and the members of the 356th Broadcast Operations Detachment, a Fort Meade-based Army Reserve unit, had lost the exact count but figured the Arnold woman's impromptu 30-second spot was about the 200th they'd recorded since setting up nine hours earlier on Thursday.

Results of the daylong project will air on the American Forces Network, a worldwide broadcasting service for the military, and the Pentagon Channel, among other places.

"This will definitely be a morale booster for folks overseas," said Sgt. 1st Class John Fries, the unit's training director, who served with the unit in Baghdad in 2006 and 2007. "It helps to hear that the public back home supports what you're doing. Sometimes that can be easy to forget."

The project was the brainchild of soldiers in the 356th Detachment, which is just wrapping up two weeks of training that included field work with the Army War College, said Capt. Shantece Wade, the unit's operations officer.

Wade approved the project and, like her colleagues, was happily surprised at how readily members of the shopping public responded to the invitation to speak.

"Probably 80 percent of the people we've approached, we've brought to the table," said Fries, who logged the speakers' biographical information on a computer. "The rest? Nobody has objected. I wonder if some thought we were trying to recruit them."

Paul Halaja and Nancy Womble, teachers who had just finished their work day at Marley Middle School, had no such worry.

Halaja, who teaches band and a current events class, stepped in front of the cameras, declined the prewritten script some used and spoke from the heart.

"I'm speaking to you from the land of the free, the home of the brave. It's that way because of you. I don't have [sufficient] words to thank you for what you do," he said, emotion welling in his voice.

"The military is too small to do what it's being asked to do," said Womble, a chorus teacher, said after recording an equally stirring spot. "[Our servicemen and women] are going above and beyond."

Mark Wilson, a contractor in town from Ohio for a building project, was on his way to Bass Pro Shops when he was approached.

"I wanted to say thank you for protecting everything my family and I take for granted," said in his spot.

In addition to the military broadcasts, members of the public will be able to see results from the project online on the Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System at dvidshub.net. That network shares news with personnel around the world.

The project was part of the training of the young soldiers on hand. Eventually, Fries said, they'll be able to produce full news broadcasts for the American Forces Radio and Television Service, a division of the Defense Department that creates "touch-of-home" programming in the U.S. for use overseas.

The day didn't lack for emotion. Spc. Christopher Jones, a cameraman, said he had recorded one spot by an elderly man who had served in the Normandy campaign during World War II.

The man told the crew about the mantra he said got him through his darkest times: "Angel, angel, work your charm; keep me from any harm."

"We had to sit down with the gentleman and comfort him," Jones said. "People are going to remember what he said on camera. I know I will."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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