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Embracing the military
[January 19, 2009]

Embracing the military

Jan 18, 2009 (The Fayetteville Observer - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Like many in Fayetteville, Spc. Eva Hernandez missed an article in Time magazine describing the city's relationship with the military.

But last week, when she was shown the headline on the online version of the article -- "Fayetteville: America's Most Pro-Military Town" -- Hernandez just shrugged.

Her expression was one you might expect from someone who had just seen a headline announcing that the sky is blue.

"Sure, they love us here," she said.
Don't get her wrong. Hernandez is counting down the months until she's able to leave North Carolina and return to her California home. But while she's here? While she's in the Army? "People here understand," she said.

This is precisely the attitude that Fayetteville promoters love to hear. It's the attitude that recently earned the city the kind of positive national attention that often eludes it.

The same week that the Time article hit newsstands in November, The New York Times ran a front-page story about Fort Bragg's post-surge baby boom. That story centered on Boots & Booties, a baby shower at the Crown Exposition Center put on by volunteers and attended by about 1,000 new military moms or soon-to-be moms. The story began with the words: "Joanne Chavonne saw pregnant women everywhere in town."

Chavonne's husband, Fayetteville Mayor Tony Chavonne, said last week that the recent coverage is an overdue recognition of efforts that have been going on for years.

The Chavonnes knew the Times article would be running. They hoped it might make the front page of a features section. Instead, it made the front page of the paper.

"We couldn't afford to buy that kind of publicity," the mayor said.
Chavonne said the coverage is another step in chipping away the military town image that he grew up with. He remembers when many in Fayetteville wanted nothing to do with a rough-and-rowdy reputation, let alone have it on the front page of a major national newspaper.

But the Army and the city have changed, Chavonne said.
Marshall Pitts Jr., who was mayor before Chavonne, also remembers the years when many people didn't want to mention the military when they talked about Fayetteville.

"You'll see that in a lot of military communities. The town itself in some ways tries to distance itself from the military," Pitts said. "I think Fayetteville learned the hard way that is not a good thing to do.

"When you look at other places in the country, there are some of them who have not yet come to the realization that the military helps make them who they are and they need to welcome that with open arms."

Fayetteville is embracing the military on a variety of fronts.
A community initiative called Fayetteville Cares began in 2007 to provide charitable support to military personnel and their families before, during and after deployments. The group aims to organize and promote the local community support efforts provided to the military. It connects those who want to help with programs -- such as the Gold Star Wives of America and Operation Homefront -- that provide emergency assistance to troops and their families.

Fayetteville Cares was a key player in Boots & Booties. Of course, Fayetteville didn't invent the giant, military baby shower. Oprah Winfrey threw one in 2004 for about 640 expectant mothers at Fort Campbell, Ky.

"Ours was a grassroots movement. We didn't have people jumping aboard because Oprah's name was attached," said Kirk deViere, one of the founders of Fayetteville Cares.

"We had over 150 volunteers who were there because they wanted to be there. We had small businesses, even in these tough economic times, providing goods and services because it was the right thing to do," deViere said.

Not all he efforts of groups that Fayetteville Cares tries to link up make headlines. Take, for example, the effort to stock the refrigerators of single soldiers who recently returned from a deployment.

"A lot of times, these kind of efforts fly under the radar screen, and in some ways that's good," deViere said. "This isn't about, 'Hey, we want to pat ourselves on the back.' This is really about making them feel like they have a hometown that supports them."

For some initiatives, news releases were sent out on behalf of the Army's Army, a group that recently moved under the umbrella of the Fayetteville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, It was on behalf of that initiative that Melissa Rivera of Durham-based Rubberneck Media has been sending news releases to a national media list. Nathan Thornburgh, the reporter who wrote the piece in Time magazine, was on the list.

In June, Rivera sent Thornburgh a news release announcing that Fayetteville was creating an army of volunteer civilians known as the Army's Army -- "the world's only volunteer organization of citizens and business who've pledged their moral, physical and spiritual support to those in the military."

Thornburgh said the release that caught his attention was one he received in September, which shared Fayetteville's pledge to be a "sanctuary" for the military and their families.

"Really, it was that word 'sanctuary.' It's a provocative word," Thornburgh said.
When he learned about the baby shower, he wanted to know more. He said he found that the desire to support the military was evident at the grass-roots level but also had "the support of the town fathers and mothers."

There's no question that stories related to the military have received national attention -- something that doesn't always work out well for Fayetteville's reputation.

The murder of three women in the military during the summer landed Fayetteville in newspapers across the country.

On the flip side, there are times when a military connection has helped the image, including a successful bid in 2001 to be named an All-America City at a contest co-sponsored by the National Civic League.

When a delegation from Fayetteville was picked to go to Atlanta to compete against 29 other All-America City finalists, it brought along some military backup.

The 82nd Airborne Chorus got a standing ovation from delegations from other cities.
And when it was Fayetteville's turn before the judges, Fort Bragg's garrison commander at the time, Col. Tad Davis, gave an emotional speech, saying: "We feel good that when we put (thousands of) paratroopers in harm's way in defense of this nation that we do it with pride and with comfort knowing that our families are being taken care of back home in Fayetteville, North Carolina."

In the media room after the event, reporters from other cities speculated that it "was those Army boys that won it" for Fayetteville.

Years later, George Breece, who headed the All-America effort, said the military participation in Atlanta was crucial.

Fayetteville's program and presentation were solid, he said, but Davis cinched it.
"He was the person who really helped make that happen," Breece said. "Around here, we hear the 82nd Airborne Chorus in our sleep. But for somebody who had never heard that? It takes it to a whole new level of patriotism."

Part of the message being trumpeted these days is intended for an audience in uniform.
That's spelled out in a volunteer recruitment video for the Army's Army. The video points out that base realignment is bringing more troops to Fort Bragg -- troops who will have to decide whether to live in Cumberland or a nearby county.

"This is war, my friends. And a community that attracts the most soldiers and their families wins," says the unidentified voice on the video. "But I'll be frank. Victory for Cumberland County isn't going to be easy. We don't have the very best amenities in the state. We don't have as many fancy restaurants, big hotels, golf courses and recreational facilities as some of our competition."

Being pro-military is the selling point Army's Army is promoting.
"There's no other community in the world that welcomes, appreciates and supports the military more than Cumberland County. That's our secret weapon," the voice on the video says. "While all these other places will be bragging about how great their schools and golf courses are. We're going to show the troops and their families that we actually want them to live here."

When it comes to selecting a home, schools tend to be the top consideration for families being reassigned to Fort Bragg, said Col. Dave Fox, Fort Bragg's garrison commander today.

But Fox said community support carries a lot of weight, and he's seen more here than at all of the places he's been stationed during his 28-year Army career.

"We have a saying, 'Watch your six.' And it's easier for a soldier to pay attention to what he's doing when he knows somebody is taking care of his family," he said.

When talking to soldiers, Fox said, he hears appreciation for the support that Fayetteville and Cumberland County provide them while they are at home or deployed.

"That does not affect a company's bottom line when it comes time to making a decision to invest in this community," said Doug Peters, president of the Fayetteville-Cumberland County Chamber of Commerce. "What it does do is show the character of the people that call this place home."

John Meroski, president of the Fayetteville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the recent attention is another step in the evolution of Fayetteville's brand.

"It's validating what we're doing. We're demonstrating to the world that this is our way of life," Meroski said. "We already know it because we see it every day. We live it every day."

Future steps include bringing more private sector involvement into the Army's Army and eventually getting to where the concept can be franchised to other communities looking to do something similar, he said.

Kirk Jackson, who cuts hair at a shop on Yadkin Road, said there's no great mystery as to why Fayetteville would end up in a story with the headline "pro-military."

That's simple, he said: "It is military."
Like so many people, Jackson grew up in Cumberland County because his father retired from the Army here in the '70s. But whether it be next-door-neighbors, cousins, children or customers, Jackson said, you'd be hard pressed to find anybody around Cumberland County without some sort of personal connection to the armed forces.

"Supporting the military is supporting ourselves," Jackson said.
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