WASHINGTON -- They came together for a chance to honor and to celebrate with those who have made a difference and those who have given of themselves both at home and abroad.
Members of Congress and the Senate, high-ranking military officials, corporate CEOs and athletes from various professional sports were in attendance Tuesday at the Ronald Reagan Building for the ninth annual Armed Forces Foundation Congressional Gala.
It was a powerful group. But the stars of the program were the approximately 250 service members and their families.
"You won't see this many important people together in one place for one cause; to be able to talk about your message with this many people, that's a big deal," said Patricia Driscoll, President and Executive Director of the AFF.
"I grew up in a military family and everyone in my family has served. I grew up in a military town. I've spent a lot of time overseas deployed with my company. ? This (program) means a lot to me and I feel we need to give back. These service members do so much to protect our freedom, give so much of themselves; we owe it to them to give them a healthy life."
The AFF provides assistance to active duty and retired military personnel and their families through a number of initiatives including financial assistance, therapy and outreach programs and national educational initiatives.
NASCAR is heavily involved through its Troops to the Track partnership, a program that brings wounded or disabled active or retired military personnel to NASCAR events.
"NASCAR is one of the most patriotic sports," Driscoll said, "and its fans are incredibly patriotic. The (Troops to the Track) program is a great way for our guys with PTSD or other issues to realize there's a lot to look forward to, that there are a lot of people that love you and care about you. And it's a good reason to continue to work hard, change your life and live life."
Kurt Busch, NASCAR's 2004 Cup champion, said it's easy for Americans to "take our freedom for granted.
"It's an everyday way of life for the majority of us, to wake up and go do the things we get to do," he said. "It's a privilege and it comes at a sacrifice.
"The way that it affects me when I see these guys at the track ? some might be missing a (limb), some might have scar tissue ? they will deal with the rest of their lives. And they're kids, from 18 to 25, that we're seeing with these wounds. What they've done to give us the opportunity to live a free life came at a cost. It's up to the AFF to give back and help tie loose ends up and to help ease that transition."
Busch spent Tuesday morning swapping rides with Australian VA Supercar driver James Courtney at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. By Tuesday evening, he was in Washington taking part in the AFF event.
"A very busy day," he said. "But I wouldn't miss this. Tonight really symbolizes what the AFF program is about, and it's a chance to honor and thank everyone involved."
Fellow NASCAR driver Jeff Burton is a member of the AFF's board of directors, although he said, "I don't think I've been a particularly good board member. I'm new and not real good at it."
He's willing, he said, to participate in a program that he feels very strongly about. Taking "10 or 15 minutes" to speak with members of the military or their families at the track "is not a big deal" when they deserve so much more.
During the drivers' meeting at Kansas a few days earlier, Burton said he saw the parents of a fallen soldier in attendance.
"I always try to go search those people out and shake their hand and tell them I'm sorry for their loss," he said. "You look in their eyes and you think ? it's an overwhelming experience. Those kinds of things are sobering.
"We finished 18th, we thought we ran well (but) we finished poorly," he said of his Richard Childress Racing team's Kansas effort. "You're mad and you think the world's coming to an end; we've run bad for two, two and a half years, you know.
"Then you step back and you realize how lucky you are. These things are humbling and help me put things in perspective. It doesn't mean we don't want to win. It does mean when we don't have success, there are bigger things in the world and this is a good example of it."
Marcus Jadotte, Kim Burton and Jeff Burton were at the festivities in Washington.
Kurt Busch was at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, before heading to Washington to honor those who serve.
Comments are currently unavailable. We're working on the development of a NASCAR fan forum ? please stay tuned.
- Military & Defense
- Motor Racing