ARLINGTON, Va. - The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff showed his appreciation to a color guard of four cadets from the National Guard’s Virginia Youth ChalleNGe Program who had just led him and more than 15,000 others in a Freedom Walk across the Potomac River to the Pentagon on the evening before the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Marine Gen. Peter Pace presented his coins to the four teenagers from the Commonwealth ChallenNGe Academy, one of 30 such National Guard youth programs.
Presenting personal coins is a military tradition, and it was a gesture of thanks to the four Youth ChalleNGe cadets who led Pace, Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England, Secretary of the Army Francis Harvey, other Defense Department leaders and thousands of citizens participating in the Sept. 10 America Supports You Freedom Walk that was a tribute to the 184 people who were killed there. Two of them were Army National Guard Soldiers – Col. Canfield “Bud” Boone, 53, from Indiana and Chief Warrant Officer 4 William Ruth, 57, from Maryland.
“It’s a great opportunity,” said Cadet Timithia Gaskins, 17.
The walk started at the Washington Monument. The cadets relieved a joint service color guard on Memorial Bridge. Other cadets formed an honorary guard around families directly affected by the attacks. “I feel very good about [doing] that,” Gaskins said. About 25 of the 200 cadets in the Virginia program joined the walk that passed the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials and Arlington National Cemetery. It concluded with a concert and a display of 184 lights beamed into the night sky above the Pentagon. Each light represented a person who died there on Sept. 11.
“They get to see more of Washington and do something that is meaningful,” said Jeremy Phillips, recruitment and public affairs officer for the program based at Virginia Beach. “This is a great opportunity for community service.”
“You and some 130-plus other gatherings like this across all 50 states today are telling our fellow Americans that we do stand together, and we do stand for freedom, and we will walk for freedom, and we will fight for freedom,” Gen. Pace told the crowd before the walk started at 6:45 p.m.
“We remember the Americans who were living their lives the way we want to live our lives who were murdered,” Pace said. “There’s no way that we can truly understand, [but] we can respect their loss by how we go about living our lives today and every day and to recommit ourselves to our freedoms.”
Some of the Youth ChalleNGe cadets had a better understanding of the impact of the Sept. 11 attacks than many people.
Khylief Thorpe, 17, lost a cousin at the Pentagon. “I feel good that there’s a lot of people out here supporting us,” he said. “It feels like a blessing to be here.” He searched for the right words. “It feels … kind of … wonderful,” he said. “They will actually remember people that they didn’t even know and put them inside their mind.”
Zacarias Rainey, 16, said he was honored to be part of the event. “I lost an uncle in the [World Trade Center] towers, so I’m very proud to be here,” he said. “It was cowardly. If they don’t like the U.S., they shouldn’t have attacked the citizens. It was cowardly. I can’t think of any other word – disgraceful.”
The 2.4 million members of the armed forces, including the Citizen-Soldiers and Airmen of the National Guard, “have said to the terrorists who want to prevent you from gathering like this, who want to prevent you from living your lives the way you want to live them, who want to prevent you from being able to pray or not pray as you see fit, ‘We are here 2.4 million strong to tell those terrorists not on our watch’,” Pace said to enthusiastic applause.
“Americans can serve this nation in so many ways,” Pace said. “In gatherings like this. In our police forces. In our fire departments. Volunteering to read to the elderly. In so many ways that Americans volunteer their time to ensure that this country produces the types of citizens that we’re all proud of and produces the type of life that we all aspire to.”
For at least one of the Youth ChalleNGe cadets, serving means enlisting. Rainey, whose uncle died in the attacks, said Sept. 11 increased his motivation to enlist in the Army National Guard. He has stayed focused onthat goal for the five years since. Rainey said he plans to attend college first. “Before I came into this program, I didn’t want to go to college,” he said. “I didn’t even want to go to school.”
The cadets are about six weeks into the Virginia Youth ChalleNGe program. Youth ChalleNGe involves a 17-month commitment to help at-risk youths who have dropped out of high school earn a GED, enroll in college, start a career or enlist in the military. Youth ChalleNGe includes life skills, training and academics. It pairs the 16-18 year-old cadets who graduate from the initial residence program with mentors to help guide them for one year. It is the nation’s second-largest mentoring program.
-- The Armed Forces Press Service contributed to this report.