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From the Governor: Soldiers deserve our gratitude

A source of pride for all Alabamians is our state’s rich heritage of military service and broad public support for our brave men and women who serve the country in uniform.

From Bataan to Bosnia to Baghdad, the sacrifices of Alabama soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have liberated millions and made the world safer for millions more.

With more than 7,800 National Guard and Reservists called to active duty since the September 11 attacks, no other state our size is contributing more men and women to the war against terror.

I believe this remarkable level of service gives Alabamians a deeper appreciation than most Americans for our military personnel deployed overseas and their families back here in Alabama.

We Alabamians are a grateful and caring people eager to do all we can to support our troops and assist their families while they’re serving America and sacrificing for us.

To help better organize citizens across the state in expressing our gratitude, and to provide the highest level of assistance we possibly can to our military personnel and their loved ones, I recently launched an initiative called Operation Grateful Heart.

Operation Grateful Heart is a statewide effort to show our appreciation and support for our service members and their families while they are deployed – and to help them make the sometimes difficult transition back to their communities when they return home.

Alabamians can be proud our state is again leading the way as the first state in the nation to have such an initiative.

Several state agencies, from the Department of Industrial Relations to the Department of Veterans Affairs, already play a role in helping our men and women in the Armed Forces.

Operation Grateful Heart coordinates these services and resources and joins these statewide efforts with volunteer-driven projects of support at the local level.

If a returning National Guard or Reservist needs help connecting with potential employers or has questions about their benefits, Operation Grateful Heart can help.

If a spouse wants to form a support group of nearby families who have a loved one serving overseas, Operation Grateful Heart can work to start such a local organization.

If neighborhood volunteers want to plan a special event to honor service members and their families, or send letters of encouragement to our troops, they can contact Operation Grateful Heart for information and assistance.

The idea to create Operation Grateful Heart was set in motion when I received an e-mail from a friend of Sergeant Tracey Bearden and his wife Bonnie of Selma.

At the time, Sergeant Bearden was deployed overseas in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and his wife, back home in Selma, faced a serious medical emergency.

Mrs. Bearden said she didn’t know where to turn for help while her husband was stationed in Kuwait.

After making contact with Mrs. Bearden, my office worked with the U.S. Army and the American Red Cross to arrange for Sergeant Bearden to receive emergency leave so he could come home to care for his family.

Then we got the Beardens in touch with non-profit organizations that assisted them with their travel and lodging expenses in San Diego, which has the only hospital where Mrs. Bearden could receive treatment for a rare lung disorder.

Who knows how many other Alabamians like the Beardens are in need of help, but don’t know where or who to turn to? The aim of Operation Grateful Heart is to give all our deployed troops and their families back home a place that will help them confront whatever problems they face.

The men and women who serve in our military have won for us every hour we live in freedom, sometimes at the expense of the very hours of the lifetimes they had hoped to live.

A state that is so proud of those who wear our country’s uniform should never forget to express its eternal gratitude to all these heroes – and their families – who have sacrificed so much for us.

Any family member of a deployed Alabamian – and any Alabamian currently serving overseas – can contact Operation Grateful Heart toll-free by calling 866-452-4944.